Whassup, Partner: Labor Disputes in Sports Show that Players and Owners Have Mutual Interests

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Sunday  Sun

The year 2011 will be no doubt be remembered for its classic confrontations between millionaire athletes and the billionaires who pay them in both of America’s two most popular sports leagues-the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

The owners of both leagues believed that their million dollar field hands were raking in too much of the revenue and were claiming that they were losing money. The NFL, which brought in $9 billion in revenue, claimed they needed more money to deal with its “rising” business costs. The NBA owners claimed that 22 of its 30 teams were losing $300 million in revenue.

Both the NFL and the NBA locked out its million-dollar underlings, presumably to get a deal that would more suited to the bottom line of its owners. Both the basketball and football owners wanted to have a bigger part of the revenue than the players. The NFL Players Association and the NBA Players Association decertified their unions and wanted to take their bosses to court.

However, neither the players or the owners in both sports wanted to spend the millions of dollars in court costs nor did they want to lose the astronomical sums of money they would have lost if they went through the nuclear winter of not playing at all. In fear of a brutal war of attrition that would have made losers out of everybody, the business “partners” got together and settled their disputes.

In the NBA, the players will get 51.5 percent of the basketball revenue and in the NFL, the players will 48 percent of the total revenue without the owners taking a billion dollars off the top as they did in the previous collective bargaining agreement.

Beyond all the financial minutia of revenue breakdowns, the back and forth rhetoric that came out of these negotiations is the stark realization, as much as the billionaire owners or people who like to defend the so-called wealthy one percent would hate to admit it, the players, who are presumably their employees, are in reality their equal business partners.

(Shhhhh…it could be that way with all workers, regardless of occupation if they only knew their true power, but that’s another story for another time.)

Let’s face it whether you go to Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia or the Staples Center in Los Angeles, you are paying to see the players, not the owners. Without the players throwing for 300 yards and chucking three-pointers from darn-near half court, all the owners have is an empty arena with well-painted team logos.

During the NBA lockout, the barnstorming tours of players like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James played to sold out arenas up and down the East Coast.

Folks aren’t going to spend their hard-earned money for that “classic confrontation” between Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

And it cuts both ways. Without the owners, the players don’t have the big arenas, the negotiated television contracts and the opportunity to make big salaries after their slam dunks and hard sacks of the quarterback puts the asses in the stands.

Perhaps the most explosive rhetoric that highlighted both negotiations was the suggestion the owners were like plantation owners. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson came out and said the negotiations were a form of “modern day” slavery.

In the NBA negotiations, HBO’s Bryant Gumbel referred to NBA Commissioner David Stern as “a plantation owner” and union lawyer Jeff Kessler said the NBA owners take it or leave it proposals treated the players like “plantation workers.”

Of course, those characterizations sent the sports media world, the left and right-wing of the Black literary community and just about everyone else into a manic tizzy that millionaire athletes would dare compare themselves to slaves. It’s not like LeBron James was horse- whipped by the Miami Heats for coming up short in the fourth quarter of the 2011 NBA Finals.

But when we get beyond the sanctimonious rancor of all those who admonished wealthy athletes for comparing themselves to slaves, I think the real issue has more to do with power and that the players want the owners to realize that their employee-employer relationship is more of a partnership in which neither side can live without the other.

“It’s really about making sure that this is a partnership and that everybody is making money,” said New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden, who wrote the book, 40 Million Slaves: The Rise, the Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete. “I think the new frontier is the exercise of collective power by players to force the owners to treat this is as a very even partnership. The underlying thing is not wanting to be exploited and putting a value on yourself and making sure the owners live up to the value you put on yourself.”

That’s something all American workers should think about.


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