Workplace Dynamics in the NBA: A Lesson For Every Fan

By: Slumpito Andreddti

The New Year has finally arrived, the weather has reached its cold wintry nadir and as happens every year, mid-June the National Basketball Association has started to heat up. For millions of NBA fanboys like myself, the six month period which begins with the highly anticipated Christmas Day games between the leading league heavyweights and ends with the NBA finals in mid-June, is the best half of the year. No longer will we have to struggle through the ugly adolescent phase of the season, wincing at each team’s growing pains as the rookies and newly acquired players struggle to find their place in the pecking order. After December 25th, team chemistry will start to form, rivalries will start to boil and bubble and personalities will start clashing. For the NBA fan, this means that there will be a constant source entertainment, be it from LeBron’s latest chase-down block,  Draymond Green’s constant temper tantrums or Swaggy P’s wildly inconsistent play. All of this is a much-needed cushion to rest our heads on after toiling and slogging for crumbs, be it at work or school. While the average viewer is well versed in the nuances of the game, be it Steph Curry’s pure stroke from distance or Kyrie Irving’s immaculate dexterity with the ball, we could learn considerably from the workplace dynamics between the players and the owners.

The labor interests of NBA players are represented by the NBA Players Association, the oldest labor union of the four major sporting leagues in the US and Canada. The NBAPA was formed in 1954 through the initiative of Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy, and was officially recognized by the league in 1964 after threatening to go on strike before the first televised All-Star game. Through the efforts of the Players Association, NBA players have earned many workplace victories, such as a minimum salary for all players ($543,471), a solid pension plan, and revenue sharing deal where the players collect 50% of all the money brought in by the league. The revenue sharing clause is actually a downgrade from years past, where players collected 57% of the revenue brought in by the league. This is especially unfair, considering that the league would be worthless without the labor of the players; nobody would want to watch empty arenas with glib rich dudes living out their fantasies (really the only things the owners provide). However, behavior like this is to be expected from the owners; they didn’t get rich by being generous, they did so by leveraging their wealth to add to their already enormous fortunes.

All of the above is a huge contrast to the working conditions of the average NBA viewer or moreover, the average American worker. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unionization rate in the American workforce stands at 11%, a stark contrast to the 1950’s, where 35% of the workforce was in a union. When Americans who came up during World War 2 and the 1950’s fondly reminisce about the abundance of well-paying jobs, jobs that allowed a single earner (usually the husband ) to provide for the entire family, this was the result of union militancy during the Depression and the early 1940’s. In fact, a study by the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute has shown a link between the decrease in unionization in the American workforce and wage stagnation. This isn’t to say that the 1950’s were perfect; discrimination against African-Americans was legal and socially encouraged throughout much of the country, it was still taboo for women to assert themselves as equals in society, homosexuality and sodomy were still illegal, which forced countless LGBTQ Americans to live in the shadows. However, it is still possible to take the lessons from the past as well as the present and apply them to the future. After years of dormancy, there has been a resurgence of militancy in the US labor movement, be it the Fight for $15 movement led by fast food workers throughout the country, National Nurses United union, which has been active fighting for the working conditions of nurses as well as showing solidarity with other struggles, airport workers in Chicago fighting for better wages and the Chicago Teachers Union, which has been nationally prominent since their strike in 2012. All of this points to a deep human desire to have a dignified existence, to be more than obedient workers subject to the beck and call of the boss, to have a say in how the fruits reaped by their hard work are distributed. There’s a common feeling of hopelessness and despair among those who belong to my generation, commonly known as the Millennial generation. This has to do with lots uncertainty, highlighted by this study that predicts Millennials will be the first generation to earn less than their parents. To combat this hopelessness, our generation will have to buck the cliche “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” spiel that has been force fed to us for countless years and look to NBA players and striking fast food workers for inspiration for being militant in our demands in the workplace.

While negotiating for higher wages and better working conditions could be a good start, the next logical step in removing the hierarchy between bosses and workers would be in removing the bosses altogether and having workplaces managed by those who labor in them. This might sound far-fetched in most cases, with most workers struggling to get by in their day-to-day lives, but the NBA is one organization where this could be possible. The average player makes $2.5 million a year, enough money to cushion them for unemployment compared to the average American. If all players past and present pooled their resources to create a parallel league with the coordination of the NBAPA, there could be a league organized by players and for players, democratically managed and without the dependence on old rich guys living out their fantasies vicariously through their employees. Obviously, something this drastic could not happen easily; there are billions of dollars at stake for NBA owners, network television companies, basketball gear manufacturers, sports drinks manufacturers and so on. Furthermore, with millions of dollars on the line, many players would be tempted to break solidarity and not give up their status for an uncertain future. Yet the fact remains that the NBA is a highly profitable entity solely because of the high-flying athletic brilliance of its players. If the players maintain true solidarity and set up a better league, this could provide inspiration for millions of NBA fans throughout America if not the world to take an active role in demanding how their labor is used.

Originally Published Saturday, January 7, 2017


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