Imagine with me. You are a sportswriter who for reasons entirely unclear entered a hermetically sealed chamber in 1965 only to wake up in 2015. After shaking off the cobwebs, taking a much-needed shower, and having a stiff drink, you are immediately confronted with two stories fighting for space in the sports pages. One involves a new stadium being built in Milwaukee for the NBA’s Bucks. The other is the account of college football players at Northwestern trying to build a union. You learn that the 21st-century Bucks owners aren’t exactly a Midwestern mom & pop shop. Today’s owners are a consortium of billionaires who made their fortunes heading something called “hedge funds,” a byzantine financial entity you only understand in so far as you know they are not garden-related.
As for Northwestern, you are starting to understand that, during your deep sleep, college football has morphed into a multibillion-dollar business, not to mention a financial life-support system for many of the nation’s top schools. In your day back in 1965, a typical top head football coach was making maybe twenty grand a year. Now they earn more than five million, easily making them the highest paid public employees in their states. You also learn that the financial and emotional pressure put on these young athletes has changed as dramatically as the salaries of the coaches. Even little Northwestern, not much of a football powerhouse in either 1965 or 2015, pulls in more than $70 million a year in revenue.
Coming from 1965, you would think two things immediately about the direction these stories were headed: Surely these “hedge fund” billionaires would be paying for their own stadiums and, without a doubt, the United States government in the form of the National Labor Relations Board would step in and as a matter of basic fairness say that college football players have every right to organize a union.
Neither of these things, you learn, took place this past week. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker—you won’t believe this guy—after cutting $250 million from Wisconsin’s system of higher education, handed roughly the same amount to the hedge-funders who own the Bucks to finance their new stadium. The Northwestern players, getting no respect from either their school’s administration or the NCAA, turned to their government for redress and were smacked down by the NLRB on the argument that granting them union rights would somehow “destabilize” the system.
Emerging from 1965, you can only conclude that all of the bedrock logic that you had taken as self-evident has been turned on its head.
By this time you’ve had a panic attack as you try desperately to crawl back into your pod. But there is no returning to 1965. After you’ve calmed yourself and taken a mild sedative, I give you two books to understand what the hell has happened to our society: two books that on the surface have nothing to do with sports. They would be The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, and Upside Down World, by Eduardo Galeano. I’d point out this quote by Galeano that defines our times on the nose. He wrote:
The worst violators of nature and human rights never go to jail. They hold the keys. In the world as it is, the looking-glass world, the countries that guard the peace also make and sell the most weapons. The most prestigious banks launder the most drug money and harbor the most stolen cash. The most successful industries are the most poisonous for the planet.
Galeano in his poetry and Klein in her brutal prose are describing the economic orthodoxy we live under known popularly as “neoliberalism.” This phrase “neoliberalism” is something used, reused, and misused so often we sometimes forget what it is even supposed to mean. Basically, it means a free market on steroids. (Not sure if you know what steroids are, so imagine Popeye’s spinach jammed into a syringe.)
Its true-believer adherents would argue that the actions of the NCAA, a cartel suppressing the free-market ability of college players to earn, or of the Milwaukee Bucks, crony capitalists gaming the public till, are the antithesis of neoliberalism: that the “hidden hand of the free market” would correct these injustices, if it was only allowed to operate. I would argue that these adherents need to get their heads out of textbooks and see how their orthodoxy plays out in the real world. In reality, neoliberalism’s hidden hand will always play second fiddle to its heavy fist. This heavy fist acts on behalf of the powerful to smash all opposition (especially unions) and will use any tool—cartels, government cronyism, the military—to increase its ability to profit and vanquish its enemies. Their argument—espoused by free-market apostles like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker—is that this actually serves a greater good for all of us because the higher the concentration of wealth at the top, the more money that will eventually reach the rest of us. As former President Ronald Reagan famously said, this wealth “trickles down.” (Yes, Reagan becomes president. Please just stay with me.)
Yet more often than not, as unions and public dissent are crushed in the pursuit of profit, wealth has trickled up instead of down. This can create great anger and frustration among those not blessed by the hidden hand, which as Klein points out, then generates “other features of the corporatist state [that] tend to include aggressive surveillance, mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture.”
But if there is one area of life where the “trickle down” theory has worked, and workers have seen their salaries dramatically expand since your deep sleep, it’s sports. However, it required strong unions, amidst the neoliberal bloodletting of labor, to pry open the wallets of owners and get players paid something close to the wealth that they generate.
But far more than wealth, it’s the logic of neoliberalism in the sports world that now nests in the minds of reporters, fans, and taxpayers. The owners of the Bucks try to vacuum as much public wealth as they can because… they can. The NCAA—ostensibly a nonprofit that makes billions—tries to crush players unions because unions exist to be crushed. The NLRB rules in their favor because neoliberalism’s logic is also their logic. Sports, from an economic perspective, is now a true neoliberal fantasyland. It may lack the free markets described in a neoliberal economics textbook, but it possesses something even more precious: a perfectly social-justice free zone.
Before you start huffing paint in despair, the prospects for change are also very real. This billionaire’s theme park has an Achilles heel, and it resides with the ones who keep the turnstiles moving: the players themselves. Athletes, whom owners have spent a generation trying to get to see themselves as brands, are getting restive. Stars want more say in the operation (you gotta check out this guy named LeBron). College athletes are being exploited. Their pro counterparts are seeing the faces of their brothers, sisters, and cousins getting slammed by our system of mass incarceration and increasingly martial inner city police forces. Everything that makes the system of sports so profitable also makes it vulnerable. In its vulnerability lies something that approaches hope.
By this time, it would be very understandable if you wanted to crawl back into your hermetically sealed chamber and come out again in 2065. Please don’t. We have a lot of work to do—starting with fighting for every college athlete who raises their voice and working against every sweetheart stadium scam. Stick around. The game has just begun.