Feb 15, 2010

Paid in Full

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell shaking hands with NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith

Cash rules everything around me. A sentiment that is never far from the surface in capitalist America, and most certainly a scenario that underlies many of our conversations about sports even when such a sentiment is not overtly expressed. Lately though the don't-nothing-move-but-the-money ethos has come to the surface as both the NBA and the NFL march towards what could be an unprecedented situation come 2011; a nation without professional basketball or football. What? Are we in the last days or sumthin'? No b-ball and no gridiron, are your serious? Well, this is what could transpire if both sports and their respective unions don't come to some suitable financial agreement before the leagues impose a dreaded lockout, an outcome that many assume is almost inevitable. Say it ain't so, Joe!

I can't imagine a world without the NBA and the NFL. To imagine a time when both sports might be locked out is like imaging a world without General Motors. And considering that a world without GM seemed a likely possibility before the government bailout and before Toyota's recent fate, it appears that nothing is sacred anymore.

If President Obama really wanted to immediately ratchet up his approval rating all he would need to do is state publicly that NBA and NFL players make too much money. Point the finger of scorn at these athletes and practically all else would be forgiven. Fashion a speech that says it was not those Wall Street corporate thugs who brought down the nation's economy, but overpaid athletes, and many of those instant teabaggers would immediately drop their protest and fall in line. Publicly vilify these rich athletes as nothing more than glorified bank robbers and there might be no need to even run for reelection; simply wait to be anointed. Obviously I'm being facetious here, as the instant teabaggers probably think that Obama is an overpaid athlete who brought the presidency with his ill gotten gains, but the point remains the same. If only the people of this nation were as mad at those high stakes gamblers sitting at the Wall Street poker table as they have long been at the perception of wealthy professional athletes then the fate of this nation's economy might very well be quite different.

Some cry that in this new economy, everyone has to cut back, so why should athletes be any different? Well to answer that simply go back and look at what happened in 1998, the last time the NBA locked out its players. At that time the nation's economy was doing great, but the players were still perceived as making too much money, so much so that many assumed that the lockout was actually a strike. The loose perception was that wealthy NBA players were so entitled that they went on strike to extract even more money from their struggling, victimized owners. This perception was so broad that the NBA Players Association had to run full page ads altering people that they were not on strike, but instead denied the opportunity to work because the league had locked them out. So, even in good economic times, professional athletes have been the scapegoat of public class envy.

As I have said on many occasions, everyone knows what the players make, but few know what the owners make. In order to employ someone, you need to make more than you owe them, that's called a profit. So every NBA owner has to make more money than that they owe their players or else they are out of the game. Players provide the talent, owners provide the money.

If Jerry Buss could play as well as Kobe Bryant then there would be no need for Kobe Bryant. But people, like that woman at the All Star game in Dallas who came up and told Kobe "I paid 8,000 for this ticket, why aren't you playing?", spend their money to see the stars, not the owners. So why is it that players are thought to make too much money, but no one even knows how much money an owner makes? Part of this is explained by embedded class perceptions that always favor owners over workers, the kind of perception that wanted to place blame on the UAW for GM's failures, for example. And of course another part of it is race. The combination of the two is lethal.

Say what you will, but with the exception of the quarterback position, football and basketball are sports generally perceived to be "black." That you have a collection of black male bodies, a critical mass, means that the sports are thought of as an almost exclusively racial world, where black men perform for white owners and by extension the white masses. It is generally understood that these black men are being "tolerated," that they are "allowed" to play these sports and make this money. Seldom are the athletes in question thought of as having earned anything. It as though they all went to the respective owners, put a gun to their respective heads, and demanded that the owners pay them exorbitant amounts of money for playing a kid's game.

Of course it doesn't work this way. Athletes like actors, singers, or any other performers offer their unique talents to the masses in exchange for capital provided by those who look to make a profit off these performances. Athletes come and go. They are expendable. They are labor. Often highly paid labor, but labor nonetheless. Owners are capitalists. They make the investment, they take the financial risk, they reap the benefits. Their careers are not subject to the fate of turning an ankle or sustaining multiple concussions that lead to permanent brain damage. Their careers are generally not over by their 30s.

So yes the owners do take financial risk, but not physical risk. And if you are one to want to take financial risk in the interest of making a profit then so be it, but when those risks don't pan out the way you wanted them to, don't turn around and use the current economic climate as an excuse for your failures. If a player can't perform, his career is soon over. If owners can't perform then they cry that they can't make a profit because they're paying their athletes too much? It's simple, like Mike Jordan once told the late Abe Pollin, recently deceased owner of the Washington Wizards, if you can't afford the team then maybe you should consider selling it.

NBA Players Association President Billy Hunter and NBA Commissioner David Stern

Some will chafe at the notion of these coming labor negotiations in both the NBA and NFL being defined by race. Yet when you consider that with the exception of the Charlotte Bobcats' Bob Johnson, all of the owners in both sports are white, as well as both commissioners, David Stern and Roger Goodell. Johnson himself probably won't be an owner much longer as Stern recently said that the Bobcats will be sold within the next two months. The players in both sports are predominantly black and the leaders of the respective labor unions are black also. Whatever the reality, the situation cannot help but be informed by race, in terms of image if nothing else. What do they say in politics, perception is reality? However you ultimately choose to break it down though, images of race and money will for sure make this an interesting series of negotiations in both cases. These circumstances have already made for some intriguing headlines.

In regards to the coming negotiations, an anonymous NBA executive recently stated that "if they don't like the new max contracts, LeBron can play football, where he will make less than the new max. Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won't make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years." You can literally hear the resentment dripping from the digital page as he speaks.

Couple this kind of resentment with reports that the NBA will also want to modify all existing playing contracts to fit the extremely reduced collective bargaining agreement that they will seek and it demonstrates the hostility even further. Current contracts signed in good faith under what were the existing circumstances of the time when they were signed will be modified to fit new more favorable terms for the owners? What is this, sharecropping? The owners' harvest didn't come in as good as he thought it would so now the people who worked the land must suffer because the owner negotiated a deal that he understood to be conditional all along? WTF?

I understand that many things have changed in our present society and that financial shifts are some of the most profound of these changes. I also understand that belt tightening is the order of the day. Yet, I do know that any and everyone who can use these current economic circumstances as an excuse for cutting back will do so without hesitation. David Stern claims the current collective barging agreement is costing them tons of money. Sounds like you negotiated a bad deal to me then. That's on you.

People will inevitably support the owners as these negotiations go forward. This I already know. I have no illusions that there is an outpouring of support for rich athletes waiting to erupt. But for the legion of sports fans out there who will inevitably say that reducing the player's compensation is a good thing, just know that the underlying issues of race and class are informing societal perceptions here. This is both a labor issue and a racial one and these are two issues that have historically bent towards the left, but often get trounced on by the right.

Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood, indeed!

Feb 3, 2010

Black Oscar

Sidney Poitier, winner of the 1964 Academy Award for "Best Actor," with Anne Bancroft, who presented the award.

Notorious Ph.D. has been on hiatus. Have no fear, the return of The Mack is imminent! In the meantime, you can check out "The Troubled (Black) History of the Oscars,"my article on the history of African Americans and the Academy Awards for The Root. Stay up!

The Good Dr.