New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is one of the NBA’s biggest stars, playing in the country’s biggest market. This summer, he will likely be a free agent – available to sign with another team for a contract that will almost certainly be worth in excess of $100 million. At last month’s NBA All-Star game in New Orleans, Anthony made news for agreeing to consider re-signing with the woeful Knicks for a contract that will pay him less than the maximum available under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement signed between the NBA Players Association and the NBA.
It has become a familiar PR move for superstars in every major sport when free agency approaches. If they don’t publicly embrace a willingness to be paid less as part of some single-minded pursuit of winning a championship, they are assailed as me-first losers and forced to justify their “selfish” desire to be paid what the market will bear for their skills.
You do not need to be a sports fan to recognize this trope. It is familiar to anyone who cares about employees, working conditions, and fair pay because it is made of the same stuff shoveled onto “ordinary workers” whose labor doesn’t make a Top 10 list. Whether it’s low-wage workers on the front lines of the minimum wage debate, or well-paid tech workers fighting wage collusion in the Silicon Valley, workers are often asked to embrace one short-changing or another. (Sometimes, it is even offered in the metaphor of sport. But just when exactly did “being a team player” and “taking one for the team” come to mean “work off the clock” or “don’t mind those sexual advances”?)
This is what drives me crazy when I hear athletes decried as overpaid. We should all recognize athletes for what they really are: workers. In fact, most of them are workers who are regularly exploited for profits passed upward into the pockets of the absurdly rich; workers with little to no job security; and workers who risk their bodies for little pay. Sure, Anthony has made millions playing a game. But his billionaire bosses – the Dolan family, who own Madison Square Garden and rank 151st on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans – make tens of millions more from the brand fostered by Anthony and his co-workers.
More importantly, we cannot forget that Anthony and other “superstars” are the rare exception. Athletes remain among the least prepared to deal with their earnings (NB: not “wealth”), and many high profile athletes wind up broke after short careers. The vast majority of athletes, in fact, toil for low wages, risk their long-term health, and even death in order for their employers to enjoy a fatter bottom line. Sound familiar? While the NFL’s Commissioner, Roger Goddell, made $44.2 million in 2012 (which we know because…the NFL is…you guessed it…a non-profit organization), players in the NBA’s developmental “minor league” (called the D-League) are placed into one of three classifications, and paid $25,500, $19,000 and $13,000. Even ESPN acknowledges rather Cavalierly that this “means D-League players are virtually playing for free.”
Why is this acceptable? And why doesn’t this cause more concern among worker advocates? Is it because it’s too difficult to see similarities between your skills, and say, LeBron James’? Is it because we believe that athletes have waived their rights and assumed the risk? Or is it because scrutinizing our escapist institutions is kind of a buzzkill? It’s a lot easier thinking about Messi’s unparalleled ball skills than about the children who made the ball. (For years it has been easier to think about anything other than the Raiders. But recent allegations of wage theft against the Raiderettes affirmed what most fans already knew about their quality of the organization.) Every now and then we get a peek into the caste system that props up our sports industrial complex, and it’s usually unsavory.
Back on the pedestal, athletes are starting to fight back. Minor league baseball players have filed a wage and hour lawsuit against major league baseball for paying them less than minimum wage. The Northwestern men’s football team appeared last week at the NLRB in support of their effort to unionize as University employees. The team’s former quarterback, Kain Colter, testified, “We are first and foremost an athlete. Everything we do is scheduled around football….It’s truly a job.” Another group of former college athletes filed an antitrust action against the NCAA for depressing the value of their scholarships. And 25 other former NCAA athletes, led by 1990’s UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, are heading to trial on June 9 against the NCAA in a case in which they claim the NCAA licensed their likenesses without payment.
I give a high five to all these efforts. Athletes have a unique power to drive public debate on workplace issues. Whether it’s new frontiers like workplace bullying and political speech or transformational moments that snarkily signal a culture of non-discrimination in the workplace, we ought to be latching onto these moments to relate them to “ordinary workers” and “ordinary workplaces.” The sports workplace can offer entrenched backwardness just like any other. But it can also be a laboratory for progress. The next time an athlete is challenged as a spoiled crybaby, it would behoove us to remember he or she is a worker, and to recognize “the power of the uniform” – whether it is worn by a San Francisco janitor or a San Francisco Giant.