The Wired World of Sports
It has been more than a decade since the labor issues of major sports leagues have dominated the conversation as they have this summer. (Unless you want to count the NHL as a “major” sports league.) Major League Baseball, surprisingly enough, has a stable labor situation, but the NFL just brought itself back from the brink of apocalypse after a nineteen-week lockout that caused much permanent damage, and the NBA is in the midst of a fierce lockout, with the cancellation of the season looming as a legitimate possibility. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know—which is fantastic news.
Today the general public is a lot more knowledgeable about matters of sports labor issues, and everything else, than it was a decade ago. In 1987 the NFL players went on strike mainly because they wanted to repeal the Rozelle Rule, which gave teams compensation when they lost a player to free agency. (The players wanted unfettered free agency after failing to secure a higher percentage of NFL revenues during the 1982 work stoppage.) In 1994 Major League Baseball canceled the World Series because of the players union’s protracted opposition to a salary cap; the union argued that the owners should not be protected from their own worst instincts at the expense of the players. In 1998 the NBA locked out its players and eventually canceled thirty-two games of the season because of a league-instituted renegotiation of the collective bargaining agreement seeking a cap on player salaries. Each of these was an attempt by leagues to reduce the power of players to assert employee rights and maximize their own profit.
At the time, though, I didn’t know any of that. Like just about every sports fan I knew, I was disgusted by both sides. Oh, no, billionaires fighting with millionaires… men playing a boys’ game for a fortune… both sides are just greedy… a pox on both houses. (The highlight of this was an infamous 1998 pay-per-view exhibition game involving various locked-out NBA players, most of whom were vastly overweight and out of shape, namely Shawn Kemp, who was never the same afterward. The game was a PR disaster that played into the worst stereotypes of the pampered athlete. It was also, frankly, kind of hilarious: I’m pretty sure I saw Karl Malone eating a cheeseburger on the bench.)
The issues of the disagreement were largely unknown to me and most sports fans, a couple of arcane, poorly explained paragraphs at the end of a wire story, likely lopped off because of space constraints. Our only real response was disgust: if we wanted to delve into the complex issues at the center of the labor fights, we needed to have a sports law degree or a family member affected by the strikes/lockouts. Lacking either of those, we had to take the spokespeople from both sides at face value… something you should never, ever do with spokespeople.
Today we no longer have to take the word of men who claim to speak for us; we can make our own judgments and decisions. If we want to know the intricate details of the NBA labor issue, we can visit Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ at cbafaq.com, where sports labor expert Coon unpacks every argument on both sides of the lockout. If the owners claim they cannot earn a profit under the current rules, Coon—along with smart reporters at ESPN.com, Yahoo.com, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, all with detailed stories available with a two-second click—checks it out, runs the math, assesses whether it’s true or not. We have no excuse to be uninformed anymore. It’s actually difficult not to understand what’s going on.
The NFL, whose demands on the players union are even more extreme than they were two decades ago, seems to have suffered the most in this information age. Twenty years ago, the juggernaut NFL might have been able to force changes down the players’ throats, knowing that public sentiment would always be on its side. But now, we know about the league’s backward view on concussions—making its eighteen-game season and restricted pension benefits look positively Dickensian—and the limits on rookie financial compensation (pushing players into their fourth and fifth years, well after the average NFL career is completed). We also have exploded the myth that somehow owners have “earned” their fortunes more than NFL players have; any news story about Daniel Snyder or Zygi Wilf will take care of that right quick. We know more than we ever have about how the sausage is made. These are complicated issues we might have known nothing about two decades ago. Now we have the information. We know what they’re talking about. We know what they’re trying to pull.
This is the case with nonlabor issues as well: the average sports fans (and the average human, really) are far better educated on every aspect of sports than they once were. Much of this is thanks to blogs. When I founded Deadspin in 2005, I wanted to help promote fans’ voices, but they didn’t need my help. Thanks to Twitter and team blogs and players taking control of the narrative, fans have a greater understanding of all issues, from officiating to athlete “discipline” to press-athlete interaction. In the past, sports issues were filtered through the eyes of elderly white men in mustard-stained ties. Now, if I want, I can get Carmelo Anthony’s views on the labor fight, Ozzie Guillen’s frustration with baseball umpiring, Drew Brees’s take on politics—and I can get it all straight from the source. Now I am the filter; fans are the filter.
This has moved sports in a positive direction. No longer can draconian measures be slipped past the sports fan. Not only do we have access to the issues involved; we can make our voices heard louder than ever before. It is an entirely new landscape. The owners can’t count on fans turning on players anymore. We know better.
This is a vital development, and has a major impact on both the NBA and NFL labor strife. You watch: we’ll be on the players’ side this time. Though, just to be safe, I’d recommend avoiding any pay-per-view exhibition games, just in case.