Sabbath, April 24, 2011

Posted April 24, 2011
By Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, Career Calling takes a break from job stuff to look at other aspects of work and play.]

When Billionaires Lock Out Millionaires

People who care about workers and their rights have been focused onWisconsin.  However, there are two other labor stories that might tell us more about where we are headed as a country:  the NFL lockout and a possible lockout in the NBA.

Many sports fans love to complain that athletes are overpaid.  “It’s just a kid’s game.”  “They don’t work every day like I do.”  These folks would be sick if they read in the Seattle Times that “the 74 top wage earners together made as much as the combined income of the 19 million lowest-paid people in America, who constitute one in every eight workers.”  We focus too much on sports, ignoring CEOs, bankers, and hedge fund managers.

That said, let’s talk about sports.  The situation in the NFL troubles me for at least three reasons. 

1. The players have been willing to compromise and restructure rookie salary.  However, the owners want to take a majority of profits (the players now get the majority) and they want expand the season from 16 to 18 games per year.  What worker in his right mind would agree to work more for less pay?

2. The average NFL player’s career lasts 3 ½ seasons.  Owners run and profit from teams for decades and generations.  The Halas-McCaskey family has controlled the Bears since the team was started in the 1920s.  The Rooneys have managed the Steelers for decades.  If owners aren’t making money, why do they keep these bad investments? (According to USA Today, 5 NFL teams are worth more than a billion dollars.)

3. Who pays the real price?  We hear more and more stories about the physical and mental damage that retired players have to deal with.  Yes, the league has better resources for retired players, but how can it compensate for the pain and shortened lives?  Owners tend to live a long time.  According to a study by the LA Times, players aren’t so lucky.

The situation in the NBA is almost as bad.  Writing in Edge of Sports, David Zirin describes NBA Commissioner David Stern as a man looking for a fight.  In recent months, he has challenged players, coaches, and referees.  According to Zirin, Stern and the NBA owners are following the NFL example of seeking a bigger piece of the profit pie.  They are also trying to end free agency, which would tie a player to one team and limit his bargaining power.  This would turn the clock back 30 years – certainly Governor Scott Walker would approve of such forward-looking thinking.

Why should we as simple working people care about these battles between millionaires and billionaires?  Like it or not, the millionaires are like us, working people who are controlled by company owners.  Players are protected by unions.  93% of Americans working in non-public jobs are not.  Who protects them?  The lock out battle reminds us that no working person is safe in the current labor market.  It also teaches us that workers standing together can protect each other and win some concessions.  If you think athletes are overpaid, take a lesson from them – support unions!

Postscript (April 27):  David Zirin comments on a recent op-ed by NFL Commisioner Roger Goodell, a rich man who thinks the world is against.