The USA Today preseason Coaches’ Poll was released this month, with Alabama predicted to repeat as BCS Champions. In the NBA, Las Vegas odd-makers have installed the Miami Heat as the heavy favorite. These two teams, on the surface, are very different: the Heat a composition of high-priced free agents come together to bring fun, flair and excitement to the NBA, and the Crimson Tide, a much more joyless and disciplined bunch captained by a taskmaster coach who would rather scowl than smile, glare than wink.
What unites them, though, are a series of news stories over the past month that revealed and complicated how we think about athletes in America and how to judge the complex relationship between players and the entities for which they play.
Two metaphors were used, each outrageous in its own way, that demonstrate how those who control teams and athletes still see them in highly problematic ways. Alabama head coach Nick Saban, bemoaning the role of agents in players’ lives, referred to them as no better than, “pimps,” while Jesse Jackson in response to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s impolitic letter brought up the spectre of slavery.
Let’s consider the Saban example first: In order to fully appreciate this metaphor, we should be clear about what it is that a pimp does and is. A pimp is such an odious figure because he profits off of using the bodies of those he controls for the enjoyment of others. The abused give most of the money back to the pimp, and in the end will almost invariably end up washed up, strung out and used up, but this of no concern because there is a steady pipeline of new people to replace the old. Does this sound familiar? Indeed, from this perspective, Saban is right to point out the presence of pimpery in college football, but he should have pointed the finger at himself, not the agents.
Comparing and equating a well-known and highly successful coach to a pimp is an explosive charge to level, and the natural response is to point out just how shady these agents are, skulking about campuses trying to lure players to sign with them. Again, it bears mentioning just what it is that these purportedly odious agents do. The agents who find themselves in violation of NCAA rules usually get into trouble for giving players money in exchange for some additional consideration when they turn pro. To find this morally objectionable is to have thoroughly bought into the foolishness offered by the NCAA.
Put another way, in what other area of life is it wrong to give someone money as part of a bid to get them to sign with you? For example, law students at elite schools often take summer jobs paying them up to $2,000 a week, mostly to do a few easy assignments, play golf and go on firm trips, all with the purpose of trying to get that student to sign with the firm upon graduation, at which point they generally get a hefty signing bonus. Yale Law School, for example, does not decry the role of legal recruiters in spoiling their students, but the NCAA would want you to believe that a player agent who gives a college player money in order to convince them to sign a representation contract with them is somehow an odious and reprehensible person.
This naturally raises the question: What is the purpose of the NCAA rule prohibiting agents from contacting players or giving them money? These rules exist as a system of control designed to maintain the power of the institution over the players. Both basketball and football are littered with successful college coaches who failed at the professional level. These failures usually have much less to do with Xs and Os, and more to do with the fact that a professional athlete generating and earning millions of dollars will not tolerate a control freak yelling into his ear—nor should they.
If you look beyond even this narrow argument to the broader structure of the NCAA, you see myriad rules— concerning things like transferring to other schools and prohibitions against alumni giving players money— that are designed to put the player in a clearly subordinate position to the coach and the university.
This is not to revisit the debate about whether college athletes should be paid by universities. The money that players receive from agents does not come from schools, but rather circumvents the school, which is of course precisely the danger that the schools fear. A player with an independent source of income is not as easily controlled and is naturally less pliant to the demands of the NCAA, the school and his coaches. The natural retort is to point out that students are compensated well enough with a free education and room and board. Setting aside the fact that many of these athletes are in fact on partial scholarships and often have no spending money (because they are prohibited from working) there are two major points here.
First, there is the question of what is “enough.” Nick Saban is set to make $16 million over the next your years. At the University of Alabama, the cost of tuition, room and board is roughly $19,000, or $76,000 over the course of four years. To those of you without a calculator handy, Nick Saban’s compensation is 210 times larger than that of a scholarship player. I understand that coaching is a difficult job that requires very rare and specific skills (after all, Ice-T reminds us that “pimpin’ ain’t easy”)—but to suggest that Saban’s contribution to the success of the Alabama football team is 210 times greater than, say, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram is to strain credulity.
Second, compensation in the form of goods and services is not really a defense. The payment-in-kind argument that says because the athlete is fed, housed and taken care of he needs nothing more ignores the fact that he cannot negotiate his terms and smacks of a certain uncomfortable kind of servitude, which brings us to the related case of Lebron James…
The first thing that must be said about Jesse Jackson’s comments regarding slavery is that in many obvious and important respects, Lebron James’ situation differs acutely from that of a slave. Slavery was an all-encompassing system of abject evil and depravity that by design broke the body, mind and spirit of blacks for the purpose of white wealth. It was a comprehensive system—physical, psychological, mental, sexual. Lebron James may well die with a billion dollars in the bank, will have traveled the world, met many famous and wonderful people and had a wonderful life. Obviously, to speak loosely of Lebron and slavery in loose terms is to do grave injustice to Mr. James’ own forefathers’ suffering.
That said, beyond the court, the Lebron-Wade-Bosh combination speaks volumes about how the modern athlete is less willing to allow circumstances to dictate their career. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the creation of this NBA super team was largely the brainchild of the players and their agents. In a very real way this represents a victory of labor over ownership. That Dan Gilbert was irate was no doubt partly fueled by the fact that his franchise lost tens of millions of dollars in value the moment that Lebron spoke his infamous words to Jim Gray, but it also stems partly from a sense of ownership that Gilbert felt he had in Lebron himself.
What complicates Jesse Jackson’s slavery comments is the larger truth that the tumultuous relationship between owners and players is not really a racial one, and in fact extends back to a point where blacks were not even allowed to play in the major white leagues. In 1911, the great pitcher Walter Johnson wrote an article entitled, “Baseball Slavery: The Great American Principle of Dog Eat Dog,” in which he decried the lack of player power within the major leagues. He characterized baseball as an example of, “the employer tr[ying] to starve out the laborer.” Unable to ever become a free agent, he joined many others in the short-lived Federal League that gave players greater power and higher pay. Going back into the 19th century, some of the earliest teams were run and owned by the players themselves. In other words, one can view Lebron’s Decision as the culmination of a long process within sports in which players have slowly fought for the lion’s share of the money that their skill, intelligence and muscle produce. It was, in this sense, particularly poignant when Curt Flood’s widow noted that her husband would have been proud.
Just as Lebron’s wealth complicates any metaphorical relationship to slavery, so too does it make it hard for the average working man to see Lebron as a working man whose crafting of his own career’s destiny is a victory for labor over ownership. Nonetheless, in the end that is what it is.
With the NFL and NBA collective bargaining agreements set to be negotiated over the next year, we will likely see this century-old fight between athletes and owners press forward. At the college level, athletes are also influenced by this new ethos of dog-eat-dog capitalism, and will want their fair share of the monies that their efforts have generated. Just as I don’t fault Lebron for making his career his own, I will never impugn the Reggie Bushes of the world for breaking a rule that should never have existed. Reggie’s only sin was getting caught, and when measured against the larger exploitation that occurs on college football fields, I simply have no patience for the sanctimony of the likes of Nick Saban who would line their own pockets with lucre earned by the sweat and blood of another’s brow, only to prevent that person from seeking a coin of their own.
Lebron James and Nick Saban are both two insufferable egos, but I prefer the preening self-congratulation of Lebron James over the sneering condescension of Saban because at least Lebron’s solipsism is not coupled with hypocrisy.
Brian Tangang Fobi is a Yale graduate student currently living in Oregon as he works on his dissertation. Reporting from South Africa, he sent dispatches to Triangle Offense during the 2010 World Cup. This is a first of a regular series of columns in which he'll write about national sports issues from a ethical, social or historical perspective.