07 February 2011

Should Liberals Care About NFL Unions?

NFL owners are seriously considering a lockout to push NFL players, who are unionized, to agree to an eighteen game season and other pro-football player contract reforms. Atrios says (via Steam Powered Opinions):

[L]iberals should care and side with labor, even if some of the players do make a lot of money. This is about how the pie gets split, and that matters even if it is a really big pie.


I can't say that I share that sentiment very emphatically. Honestly, I don't have strong feelings about union-management relations in pro-sports generally.

The fact that pro-sports, and most of the performing arts, are organized into unions at the industry level is notable. This shows the potential for union power in industries with employers that are either small, or ephemeral (e.g. a movie production company or Broadway show run), which are ill suited to an employer based organizing approach.

Labor actions in these high profile fields are among the only labor actions that receive public attention in a modern union-management relations climate in which work stoppages have never been more rare.

But, these labor actions have not cast those unions in a very favorable light. The most recent writer's strike in Hollywood appears to have led to a permanent shift in favor of reality TV formats that have undermined union members. Appearing to deprive average Americans who have no strong economic stake with the owners or the talent of entertainment isn't a good way to make them your friends. The general American public has also been habituated to a distaste for public conflict over compensation in tough, battling ultimatum driven negotiations, something that they rarely experience in their own lives.

Indeed, in sports even more than in the other performing arts fields, the public media coverage of the money issues seems to take away from the enjoyability of the game itself. It tarnishes the images of all involved and the institution itself.

This isn't to say that I have lots of warm and fuzzy feelings for pro-sports team owners and management either. But, players and owners alike have a strong shared economic interest in extracting as much money from fans as possible. Why shouldn't liberals care as much about the size of this particular pie as they do about how it is split?

To be perfectly honest, despite Atrios' appeal to our liberalism, since I am not a die hard sports fan who stays abreast of the business of sports as well as the conduct of sports, I have very little sense of what share of the pie players, referees, and owners and managers of our professional sports leagues receive now, let alone whether there is any sensible reason for this mix. I do have a fairly fine tuned understanding of why different players get paid different amounts relative to each other and relative to other people in the labor market, from general economics discussions, but I know more about the relative split of profits in small enterprise, in movie productions, in investment banks, in utilities, in government and in industrial companies, than I do about industry specific divisions of loot in professional sports. (In fairness, he cites a Daily Kos diary that makes the case that players do get the shaft relative to franchise owners.)

Any responsible person, before taking sides in a dispute where someone seeks to change the status quo, ought to understand the status quo better than I do, rather than simply jumping on a bandwagon without regard to the merits. Surely, there is some fundamental sense in which the status quo is more or less fair, and favors one side or the other. Is the player's share fat or lean? Are management's demands sensible or oppressive? I certainly don't know the answer to those questions personally and would hesitate to have an opinion on how their negotiations should come out until I knew. While a presumption of unequal bargaining power between labor and management is reasonable in some contexts, it isn't at all obvious that such a presumption is appropriate in the case of NFL football players.

And, suppose that the split of the pie between NFL players and owners in the current status quo is unfair. My instinct is to wonder how that came to be, given that the status quo itself was a product of union-management negotiation. Perhaps, something else in the system of union-management negotiations is broken. And, if it isn't broken, why should anyone involved care what I or anyone else in the blogosphere thinks? If union-management negotiations generally produce good results, why should we fear that it won't do so this time around?

Do Unions Benefit Athletes?

Any effect that these unions have had in reducing compensation inequality among union members is less than obvious from pro-sports and the performing arts which have increasingly gravitated towards a winner takes all model, that owners have appeared (for the selfish reason of wanting a larger share of the pie) to advocated more than the talent. Is the second string outfielder or linebacker, or the chorus member in a Broadway show, or the infrequently recurring soap opera actress really better off because of the union? Perhaps, but these gains are often invisible to the general public, and are hard to quantify even for expert economists.

It is also far from obvious that pro-athlete unions do an adequate job of helping people who mostly have very high flying but short careers convert their brief moments of bounty into long term financial well being. I've known financial planners who specialize in that, but the extent to which they are used and the extent to which they are successful in achieving those ends, is decidedly mixed. Lots of athletes get feted and then thrown out and find that they have squandered their brief moments of plenty. Perhaps it is presumptuous to think that this is a job for athlete's unions, but being a liberal, I do think that.

The case that unions provide a negotiating edge is also atypical in pro-sports, because many or most pro-sports union members, unlike most ordinary union members, have professional agents on retainer who are charged with negotiating their contract terms to their advantage. While a typical union provides its members with both savvy in negotiations and power, the pro-sports player's union is purely a means by which to maximize employee power.

Liberal Instincts On The Organization Of Sports

My "liberal" instincts are instead to question whether it really makes sense for pro-sports teams to be organized as "for profit" entities at all, particularly in light of the ample public subsidies in the form of stadium construction and less tangible assistance in the form of public goodwill and loyalty, that members of the public provide to these teams.

Watching George W. Bush and his cronies in a box at the Superbowl brings to mind the underlying story about all that is bad about corporate sports. It also brings alive a question. Why, if the publicly held corporation is the secret to all great economic blessings, are pro-sports teams organized as closely held for profit businesses, rather than publicly held ones? These are capital intensive enterprises, so why don't they raise funds for stadiums with stock offerings and bond issuances?

A lot of the attraction of professional supports comes from tribal rivalry rather than the absolute quality of what actually takes place on the field. The fact that our professional soccer players aren't nearly as elite as our professional baseball players and get paid far less has only a modest impact on our feelings about rooting for the home team. If there was a national salary cap on compensation for pro-athletes of $100,000 per player, per year, we would still love pro-sports just as much. Appropriating that civic pride for private gain feels a little dirty to me.

In my ideal world, pro-sports teams might be owned by non-profits, perhaps affiliated with local governments and perhaps not, or organized as player owned organizations, although I can see that the very unequal and different in kind contributions of talent to these organizations might make a player owned form of organization problematic, because groups of co-owners tend to do a poor job of negotiating compensation arrangements with any degree of complexity among themselves.

On the other hand, I can't say that the college sports model, in which the immense enterprise that is centered around college athletes at large universities deprives those athletes of any compensation beyond scholarships, popularity and prospects of a pro-sports career, in the name of amateurism, is any better. In that circumstances, recognition of their legitimate contributions to the enterprise, which involve a great amount of work and commitment and produce economic benefit, are treated as a form of corruption.

Indeed, I am ambivalent about the linkage between education and organized sports at all. There is much to be said for the European model of having sports clubs independent of particular schools or colleges at all levels of competition. There is no deep reason that we should expect aspiring professional football, hockey and basketball players to attend college, while allowing aspiring professional baseball players to chase their dreams in the minor leagues instead.

1 comment:

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Update: The Superbowl winning Packers are the only non-profit in the NFL which has prohibited further non-profits from joining it.