What Type of a Job is an Athlete?
On the Tuesday leading up to the NBA Draft, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz published an article that was cleverly titled “Let Zion Williamson choose where he wants to play next.” At its surface the article argues for a complete restructuring of how young, aspiring NBA players are to enter the league. The current system, the barebones structure of which has been around since 1947, follows a similar format to almost every major American sports league: within each round, which consists of the same number of picks as there are teams in the league, the worst teams from the previous seasons get to choose first while the best teams choose last. The draft has undergone a couple of changes over the last few decades which have mostly consisted in attempts to curtail the benefits of organizational dysfunction (“tanking”), and to prevent high school players from being exposed too early to the fraught life of a professional basketball player.
However, what Arnovitz proposes is much more radical than any piecemeal alteration: he wants to get rid of the draft altogether. The crux of his argument is an equivalency he makes between sports and other forms of work. And the example he chooses is telling: “Can you imagine if Memphis Grizzlies owner Robert Pera -- who, upon graduating from UC San Diego with a master's in engineering, chose to take his skills to Apple -- was instead asked by some governing authority in big tech, ‘Where don't you want to go?’ then promptly assigned there?” The dissonance between the work that the ownership engages in – which appears to have all the normal characteristics of an employee-employer relationship – and the work the players engage in – which allows ownership groups a large measure of control over young players’ lives – is on full display here. But this is not an idea that readily comes to the sports fan’s mind, especially while watching the draft itself. Players and their families burst into celebration when they’re picked, tears stream down faces at the prospect of a well-deserved reward for years of training as the mood is buoyed by a collective sense of “we made it.” It’s easy to get lost in the promise of multi-million dollar contracts and the celebrity of professional sports to assume that common sense labor standards don’t apply given the magnitude of the opportunity to play in the NBA.
This is the basis of the most common critique levied against the growing tide of what has been called the decade of “Player Empowerment” – a movement within the league to give greater flexibility to players to play wherever, and with whomever, they want. Brought most obviously to mass attention by Lebron James’ controversial “The Decision” which broadcast his move from his hometown team in Cleveland to play with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, “Player Empowerment” is targeted by its critics as a movement that gives players who are already rich and famous too much extra freedom. Instead of sticking it out for a franchise and its fan base, these players are perceived as playing for their own selfish motivations, angering those around the league who see the sport as corrupted by ego and an anti-competitive malaise.
There’s certainly a reactionary bent to what gets said about a league that is predominantly black having too much agency in their own employment decisions. The past that is often invoked – a league when the players were “tougher” and didn’t complain about who they played for – often comes across as a convenient and self-serving fantasy. As is the idea that players shouldn’t criticize the system that is paying them large sums of money, since the players themselves are the sources of huge amounts of revenue, it is their talent people tune in to see. And if the market for their labor is fairly paid, why shouldn’t they enjoy the same workplace benefits as the ownership group that employs them? The question ultimately comes down to what kind of work we think think professional athletes are engaged in. If Arnovitz’s equation is true and playing for the Memphis Grizzlies is a job, the same type as one might get at Apple, then is it only conventional wisdom that holds the “Player Empowerment” back?
To attempt to answer this question, it’s worth examining some of the more level-headed criticisms brought up against the ideal of total player mobility. These are centered around the issue that has plagued the NBA since its popularization: competitive parity and the big market dominance of the sport. Only five teams – the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls, Spurs, and Warriors – account for 70 percent of all championships ever won, with the Lakers and Celtics totaling 33 titles between them. And with the exception of the Spurs, the other four teams are based on large media markets, as are the teams with the next most championship totals: Miami, Detroit, and Philadelphia, all with 3. Put simply, in the NBA only a couple of teams win, and they are, by-and-large, in big cities. One need only look to what happened with Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans ascendant superstar, this past year to understand how player choice could exacerbate an already lopsided league. Dissatisfied with ownership of the Pelicans and the direction the franchise was headed, Davis publicly requested a trade, despite having a year left on his contract. The situation was drawn out for awhile and Davis sat out for most of the year while the Pelicans decided how to proceed, but Davis was ultimately traded to…you guessed it, the Lakers.
Maybe Los Angeles was able to offer Davis a level of popularity and fame that the small market New Orleans could not, or maybe Davis was just frustrated by a stagnant franchise and an incompetent front office. But the fear that this scenario so obviously unearthed was that players enjoy having a national platform and the sponsorship money that comes with it, and not every team can offer them that, to no fault of their own (sorry Utah and company). If left then to their own devices, the best players would quickly evacuate their current small-fry city and flee to the nearest, LA, Boston, or New York. What is particularly effective in this argument is that it both somehow upends the power structure of the entire league so that ownership groups of teams like Utah and Denver suddenly become the “little guy” we’re supposed to root for, and that it seems to argue that players acting in their own self-interest is actually bad for business.
I want to pause for a moment on how player movement inverts our commonplace notion of a healthy economy. On one hand the various billionaires that make up the cast of the small-city ownership group have assumed the role of the underdog against their prospective employees, maneuvering to sever the players’ power of self-determination for the betterment of the franchise as a whole. In doing so, they implicitly undermine a foundational assumption of the modern economy: that individuals working in their own self-interest is economically beneficial to everyone. That this is a legitimate concern amongst the NBA’s governing body should indicate the double-bind that the league is in. If they decide to treat NBA players like normal employees of an organization and grant them the freedom to choose the city they’d like to play for, they risk acting against the balance of competitive play. But if they continue to restrict a player’s mobility and power of choice, they wade into an over-exertion of the ownership’s power into its employees’ lives.
In a sense the question of the type of labor professional basketball is might be an easy one: it is contractual, both sides negotiate a contract with a stipulated number of years and a per-year salary, lucrative, and out of touch with the laboring trends of other high-paying industries. We tend to overlook some of the more obvious red flags of how professional basketball conducts its workplace practices – it’s been widely documented that an alarming number of former players go broke after their careers are finished, player’s mental health problems have been pushed to the forefront of the conversation surrounding “Player Empowerment” so much so that the commissioner, Adam Silver, admitted in an interview with Bill Simmons that it’s been of his pervading concerns, and there have been increasing calls for the majority white ownership groups to stop using the word “owner.” What this all points to is a rift between the public perception of the life of a professional basketball player – all glamor, money, and women– and the sometimes sobering reality of working for an organization that retains the power to make life decisions on your behalf, and the psychological and financial consequences of losing that agency over one’s own career.
What we seem to have collectively agreed upon is this: that professional sports are like other forms of work, but the amount of money its employees are paid is so disproportionate to their societal productivity level that they should be happy with their millions and stop complaining so much. Basketball is just a game, after all. This is the line trotted out by those, like Charles Barkley, who hold a more fatalistic stance on worker relations that was best expressed when he was paraphrased on the Open Floor Podcast saying that “employees will never hold power over their bosses, that’s just the way of the world.” Barkley’s point is ostensibly a criticism of what he sees as the “prima donna” attitude amongst the current crop of NBA superstars, but it also nicely sums up the attitude we, as a viewing public, interiorized as the natural way of the sport: the franchise takes precedence over its players. How else do we explain the vitriol thrown Kevin Durant’s way when he signed with the Golden State Warriors in 2016? A move he justified by appealing to our sense of the workings of the normal labor market – why wouldn’t a worker in his late 20s go choose the best company that wants him?
What this becomes a question of is how to ensure a fair, competitive market when it’s obvious that some franchises have an innate advantage (size of market, metropolitan area, and so on) that others do not. The NBA League Office has decided that player choice is not an effective means for achieving competitive balance and has legislated itself accordingly. There are cap space laws that dictate the amount each team can pay its players and so, unless stars are willing to take a pay cut, teams are prevented from using their deeper pockets to sign all of the best players. This hampers the market value of a player’s talent by restricting it to a ceiling it can’t go above, but it assures that league stays watchable so long as the teams are on equal playing fields. To the extent that it actually remains “equal” is disputed, but it’s worth asking why we don’t accept labor practices in sports that we accept in the market at-large. Our own anti-trust and monopoly laws pale in comparison to a legislative body that doesn’t allow its employees’ salary to rise above a certain number, and that chooses their destination for them, thus calling into question the fairness of competitive balance.
But perhaps the answer is, as Arnovitz alludes to, not to be found in the players themselves, but the very ownership groups that wield so much authority. After all, they are the only employees of the organization whose incompetence would not be cause for their dismissal. Robert Sarver in Phoenix has been a widely mocked disaster as the Suns’ owner and, despite calls from locals for him to sell the team, he’s not going anywhere. Nor is James Dolan, the equally hated owner of the Knicks who has essentially squandered every opportunity he’s had to bring a desperate New York fan base back to basketball relevance. This is a role that has significant impact on a franchise’s future, yet is the only one not subject to our long-held assumption that the most talented guy (and it’s always a guy) gets the job, and if he underperforms he’s fired to make room for the next “most talented guy.”
This, more than anything, expresses the problem of the NBA power structure: its employees and employers are held to completely different standards where the employees compete for artificially limited resources, while an ownership group reaps the profits without any fear of losing their job or being moved. Instead of complaining about player movement, we need to ask why we don’t hold NBA owners to the same standard to which we’d hold our own bosses. It’s a bit of a pipe dream to imagine holding these already fabulously wealthy men to account, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that, as players begin to understand their own power within the league and its rapt public audience, there’s no reason why players should be punished for organizational failures to put them in positions to succeed. If an equal playing field is what we’re after, this shouldn’t come at the expense of the employee benefits we accept as common sense in other industries. Basketball is a job like any other – it’s time its owners treat it like one.