NBA Players: Rooting For These “One-Percenters”

Posted on October 12, 2011 by

A principal message of Occupy Wall Street is that America’s wealth and politics are being stolen by a small fraction of the nation’s population. 

The rest of us are counted among the “99 percenters,” regular folks victimized by unemployment, debt and corporate greed. 

The protests are tapping a powerful progressive populist sentiment which has been missing during the Obama era. 

Though it doesn’t fit neatly into this narrative, there is currently a high-profile labor dispute in which the “workers” are being asked to give back hard-earned gains. 

And that, of course, is the contract dispute between NBA players and the league. 

Forget for a minute the “millionaires vs. billionaires” rhetoric or the sometimes self-centered behavior of basketball superstars; the fact is that team owners are demanding substantial concessions from the union and have initiated the “lock out.”

The bosses want to roll-back the share of revenue devoted to salaries from 57 to 50 percent.  The union has already agreed to 53 percent but owners and the league are saying no. 

Don’t expect fans to sympathize with their sports heroes (particularly given the cost of a seat at an NBA game), but keep in mind that the employers agreed to these terms in past negotiations. 

Unlike the recent NFL players contract fight in which the union reached out to the labor movement for support (though we didn’t hear much from them after the settlement), the NBA players aren’t bothering with solidarity tactics. 

Players are banking on their power as irreplaceable employees – a mistake a lot of blue collar industrial workers made in the disastrous union-busting 1980s.

While there’s not much cache in characterizing pro basketball players as exploited workers, these “one-percenters” and their union – like everyone else – are up against an entrenched and unforgiving oligarchy: 

In this case, the team owners who are the true masters and rulers of the sports world.

Comments (6)


  1. Bill Voegeli says:

    1. One of the strange things about labor negotiations in American major league sports is that the unions are the free market advocates and management favors a highly regulated labor market. That is, the unions are always trying to protect and expand free agency, while the owners are trying to compress the wage scale. In baseball, before free agency, Babe Ruth’s salary was a relatively small multiple of the Yankees’ lowest-paid utility infielder, compared to the disparity between what the Yankees pay Alex Rodriguez, about $28 million per year, and what they pay the 25th man on their roster.
    2. There’s a second respect in which the owners in this dispute are not run-of-the-mill capitalists: Teams compete during games, but collaborate as enterprises. The Lakers aren’t trying to drive the Phoenix Suns out of business and take over their franchise. The league has a legitimate business concern about free agency, as a result. When LeBron James left Cleveland for the Miami Heat last year, and Carmelo Anthony left the Denver Nuggets no choice but to trade him to the Knicks, it pointed to an untenable future for the NBA: the best players signing up with half-a-dozen glamorous teams in the biggest media markets, reducing the other 24 teams to sparring partners with no hope of ever winning a championship. If that’s the future of the NBA, then it has no future, because teams like the Charlotte Bobcats and Memphis Grizzlies aren’t going to be economically viable if the NBA’s economics turn them into the Washington Generals. It’s clear that the percentage of basketball-related revenue that the players receive is not the most contentious part of these negotiations – there’s obviously a number between x and y that the two sides can eventually agree on. The talks have broken down because the owners’ proposals about salary caps and luxury taxes would curtail the high-spending franchises to a degree that would render free agency considerably less free. The players, avid capitalists in this regard, want their members to be compensated at the rate the market will bear.

  2. shig says:

    This is where a marxist analysis of class relations is really useful. it doesn’t matter how much the players make in absolute amounts. What matters is how much money the owners are making off the hard work of these players, and they’re making a lot.

    It’s symbolically important that the players make their stand above the 50/50 mark to make the point that those doing most of the work deserve most of the revenue. David Stern sucks.

  3. Lee Loveridge says:

    I liked the solution baseball sought in the 19th century. The players formed their own league. Personally, I don’t like how unified the American and National Leagues are. They should be two competing leagues.

  4. Wendel Eckford says:

    Nice article Lou!

  5. deborah b. says:

    I would add two words at the end. “will gain.”
    great article………………….

  6. John Connolly says:

    Great conversation! Thanks to Bill V and
    Shig in particular for their comments.

    Unlike classic proletarian mass production and service unions, modern professional sports’ unions function more like Medieval Guilds of high-skill craftsmen, with outsize physiques and superior fine motor-skills substituting for tightly-held secret craft processes and hereditary membership.
    The US players’ organizations and personal/collective skill levels are such that they have more immediate leverage to recover and retain surplus-value from the owners since they themselves are in a sense the product … a product by the way which is marketable world-wide in many sports: basketball, hockey, soccer even baseball to some extent … the world jury’s out on US-style Football.
    This world skill market can give the Players added leverage since they can sell their skill elsewhere because they have some jack to begin with and are not FORCED to migrate like poor workers worldwide.

    Of course it was not always so. Not too long ago US professional athletes were essentially indentured servants.
    Two Words: Marvin. Miller.

    It would be interesting to make a study of the differences in perspective between team-sport players who have largely unionized and individual competition sport players in golf and tennis who have essentially created trade associations for themselves as independent contractors rather than workers.

    Then of course in the Track & Field sports, (mostly individual competition) athletes are atomized and largely powerless as they are ruled by international bodies of rich thugs and thieves, the corrupt direct descendants of the “Amateur Sport Tradition”… don’t get me started … there’s some truly nasty Surplus Value afoot there.

    One final note to the “David Stern Sucks!” remark above.
    Stern has been a Big Shot Member of the DEMOCRATIC Party Establishment for decades.
    Back-stabbing 101: the evidence mounts up.

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