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Three Myths About Professional Athletes and Their Unions

NFL Owners vs. Players

by DAVID MACARAY

With the NFL’s contract set to expire on March 3, and rumors of a lockout gaining momentum, fans are not only wondering if there will be a 2011-12 football season, they’re already blaming the NLFPA (National Football League Players Association) for this predicament.  For whatever reason, it’s the players and their union who usually get blamed in these disputes.  Rarely do fans direct their hostility toward the owners.

Correspondingly, it’s amazing how many people still believe that professional athletes didn’t coalesce into labor unions until relatively recently—during the turbulent 1960s—and that these collectives were formed as a result of collusion between greedy sports agents, opportunistic lawyers, and militant athletes.   

But sports unions have been around for over a century.  The Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players (note that “Baseball” was two words) was established way back in 1885, during Grover Cleveland’s first term as president.  Professional athletes formed their own union while this country was still in the horse and buggy era.  Indeed, the first Model T Ford wouldn’t roll off the assembly line for another 23 years. 

There’s no shortage of myths about pro athletes, their wages, and their unions.  Here are three of the most common:

Myth #1:  These guys don’t need a union.

For openers, if they didn’t have a union, they wouldn’t have minimum salaries, defined pensions, guaranteed work rules, or grievance procedures.  They wouldn’t have these things because they wouldn’t have had the muscle to obtain them.  Professional athletes need a union for the same reason nurses, airline pilots and autoworkers need one.  Without a union, they’d be at the mercy of the owners.

And if you trust team ownership, you haven’t been paying attention.  In 1990, major league baseball’s owners were found guilty of collusion, a felony, and fined $280 million.  Team owners are sharp-eyed, hardbitten businessmen, not sports dilettantes.  Just as defense contractors plunder the U.S. treasury while waving the American flag, team owners like to pretend they’re performing a public service rather than engaging in naked commerce.

Moreover, management’s argument that high salaries are a threat to “small market” teams is disingenuous.  First of all, where is it written that there should be an unlimited number of professional teams?  For 90 years major league baseball flourished with only 16 teams.  Secondly, why are those same free market fundamentalists who object to subsidies and regulations now worried that the Pittsburgh Pirates may face extinction?  It’s the inexorable Law of the Market, boys, and you can’t have it both ways. 

Myth #2:  They make too much money.

In a perfect world, school teachers, social workers and existential poets would earn more money and wield more prestige than men who can hit a moving baseball or catch a football.  But it’s not a perfect world; and whether we like it or not, the entertainment industry (including music, TV, movies, professional sports) generates a staggering amount of revenue….billions and billions of dollars a year.

With raises the question of who should get the lion’s share. Should it be those with the demonstrable talent, the skilled individuals who actually perform—the singers, actors and athletes—or should it be the parasites who cling to the talent, who draw sustenance from it—the owners, studio executives and promoters?  Also, it’s worth noting that the majority of team owners became wealthy through inheritance.  These “jock-sniffers” (players’ derogatory slang for owners) bought their teams with daddy’s money.

Amazingly, pro athletes figured this out long time ago.  In 1890, professional baseball players (most of whom were unsophisticated lads fresh off the farm) decided that they didn’t need to be owned.  Unsophisticated as they were, they were shrewd enough to realize that while there were many things a baseball team required—uniforms, a field to play on, teams to play against, spectators willing to pay, etc.—being owned by somebody wasn’t one of them.

Accordingly, they went ahead and formed what was called the Players League, consisting of eight teams owned and operated by the players themselves.  Besieged by threats and false promises, the PL lasted only one season (1890), but the establishment of this players’ co-opt was a revelatory moment in American labor history.     

Myth #3:  High salaries are why tickets cost so much.

This is perhaps the silliest myth of all because it ignores a fundamental principle taught in Economics 101:  the law of supply and demand.  Team owners will charge as much as the market will bear.  Simple as that.

Does anyone really believe that team owners would charge less for tickets if their payroll were to suddenly shrink?  That these owners would willingly seek less money for tickets than what they already knew they could get?  Of course they wouldn’t, and to think otherwise is absurd.  They would continue to charge all that the market will bear, regardless of team payrolls, because that’s the nature of commerce. 

Also, who do you think leaks these exorbitant salary figures?  It’s not the players or their agents, who don’t necessarily want fans or other players to know their business.  It’s team management who publicizes them, hoping that John Q. Public will get angry at the greedy players instead of resenting the owners for raising ticket prices.  TV revenue and $1 a year stadium leases assure that no NFL team can lose money, which is why, despite their whining, NFL owners have steadfastly refused to open their books for inspection. 

So with the current dispute being a battle between the millionaires and the billionaires, the choice of whom to support seems fairly obvious.  You support the people who matter, who actually contribute, who possess a demonstrable skill, who are, in fact, indispensable to the game.  You support the players.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net