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Sports, Labor and Power: The Chris Paul Edition

On December 8th, 2011, the New Orleans Hornets traded Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers (with help from the Houston Rockets).  The best point guard in the game was switching teams after essentially forcing his current team to trade him by stating which handful of teams he would be willing to play for and sign a long term contract with.  His list, not surprisingly, did not include the Hornets.  This followed a trend started in previous years of superstars bolting small market teams to bigger cities like Lebron James (Cleveland to Miami) and Carmelo Anthony (Denver to New York).  So it wasn’t a new thing for a player to pull a power play like this, but what was new was when David Stern, the commissioner of the NBA, stepped in and vetoed the trade after a number of small market owners complained.  They hid behind the excuse that the trade wasn’t fair, but really, their problem was one of power. They were essentially willing to blow up their league’s integrity because an employee was dictating to his employers where he wanted to work and with whom.  And that, obviously, is not how this whole employee / employer relationship is supposed to work.  The owners thought they had reminded the players who was boss by extracting billions of dollars in concessions in a recent labor dispute, but that was mainly for the rank and file talent.  Superstars such as Paul?  Someone forgot to remind the owners that they are the ones that the people pay to see.  Hence: Power.

Now as a Boston Celtics fan and Los Angeles Lakers hater, I should be ecstatic about this, right?  Wrong.  As I read the Chris Paul story (and coverage of the NBA labor dispute before that), it struck me that it had larger meaning beyond just the NBA.  I read more than enough comments, in the media and on message boards, that can be summarized as: “These players are employees.  They are getting paid to do their job just like me.  I don’t get to tell my employer where and when I want to work, so why should they?”

First of all, this just isn’t true.  I am not going to cry for millionaire athletes, but as people working under contract, their employment situations are very different from normal employees. No matter how they perform, they will receive the same salary for the most part.  That’s great when you plan on underperforming, but it also sucks when you overperform your contract.  Additionally, in the NFL, as opposed to the NBA, owners figured out a way to make this situation even more tilted by making contracts unguaranteed.  Think about that for a second.  There is a contract, but it’s essentially guaranteed to be honored only by the player (i.e., the employee).  If the owner decides that the player isn’t worth the value of the contract, they can get rid of the employee without paying another dime.  But as a player, you are forced to honor your contract, even if you think that it is unfair years later.  Matt Forte and Desean Jackson have found that out the hard way.  And somehow, being upset about this power imbalance makes them look like bad guys in the eyes of the public.  But ask yourself?  If you were being paid significantly less than your value to your company, and you knew others would pay you more to do your job, wouldn’t you want to work elsewhere?  Would you be upset that the company wasn’t taking care of you?  Would it affect your performance?  I’ve been in that situation myself, and I can most certainly answer affirmative to all three questions.

So, it’s no wonder that all of the owners in professional sports look to the NFL as the gold standard of labor agreements.  Who wouldn’t want to push all (or most) of the risk onto the people performing the job?  To their credit, in the NBA, despite giving up billions of dollars in concessions, the players were smart enough to avoid the NFL situation in resolving their labor dispute.  However, the decks are still stacked in favor of the owners.   In addition to not being able to get more money if they overperform their contract, as a professional athlete, they don’t get to choose where they play, who they play with, what role they play, and who they play for.  This is a big deal.  For anyone who has any choice in where they work, the key criteria for choosing where one applies their trade are:

  1. Money
  2. Location
  3. Co-workers
  4. Role
  5. Boss

…not necessarily in that order, but in some combination.

Clearly, not everyone has the power to exercise that choice in practice, given the need to put food on the kitchen table.  And most of us certainly don’t get to dictate to our bosses how things should change.  Especially with unemployment pushing 8.5% or more.  But, for most athletes, the one’s you never hear about, they actually have less power than you and me in their workplace.  They don’t get to quit and take off for a competitor.  It is really only the superstars (just like people in other very specialized, highly skilled professions I might add), that have the luxury of not having to blindly and apologetically accept the orders of the employer, even when they are exploitive or unfair.  It’s turned the relationship upside down in some regards.  And with the Chris Paul trade veto, the NBA owners are trying to flip it back over again.



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