Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pickin' Sides

Many longtime ShysterBall readers know who Diesel is. For those who don't, Diesel is a frequent commenter in these parts and, more significantly, was the voice behind the now-dead blog Two Guys Who, Like, Never Agree. Diesel's real name is Connor Doyle, and Mr. Doyle has started a new blog. While it will stray into areas outside of sports, today he's on about baseball. Working from Joe Sheehan's broadside of the draft, Connor has a really good question:

Why are American sports fans, who are prone to sympathizing with labor concerns
in just about every walk of life, so pro-owner when it comes to athletics? . . .

. . . why are fans still so reflexively anti-player/pro-ownership?

Connor chalks up the general pro-ownership stance of fans to (a) media bias; and (b) envy. Maybe you agree, maybe you don't, but check out his whole argument before you make up your mind.


Mark Armour said...

The draft was begun in 1965 specifically to slow down out of control bonus payments to players. Nothing more. They tried various rules to counteract bonuses (most famously requiring that bonus players play two years in the majors--penalizing the player, essentially), but eventually hit in the draft.

For many years the bonuses of drafted players were still pretty low, but eventually players started using leverage of staying in college or going to college. Once that happened to much, the owner came up with slot rules.

Hey, if you want to be on the owner's side of this issue, knock yourself out. All I ask is that you start by understanding what is actually happening and why before making up your mind.

Mark Armour said...

Wow, a few typos in that comment. Sorry. Needless to say I agree with Diesel.

sean b said...

interesting post by diesel.

i am abstractly interested in the media bias argument, because on the surface there is such a populist media backlash that this almost seems like it should backfire. what it really illustrates (assuming it's true) is that much as people like to gritch about "the media" (a term which i loathe) its effects on public opinion are immense.

i actually like the envy argument better, and would like to add a twist. we are so conditioned by the achievement ideology and the myth of sports as facilitator of social mobility that i think we see these athletes as exactly like us, but with freakish abilities in culturally valued activities.

because of our egocentric natures, we then project our own feelings and lament that these gifted athletes don't see things the way we see them. though this point is implicit in the argument, i'd like to explicitly make the link between seemingly paradoxical feelings between over-identification and projection.

in the end, we think we know far more about athletes' worlds than we think we do, because we have been conditioned to believe that they are exactly like us... and they both are and aren't.

Rob said...

I'm not sure where he gets the idea that Americans are generally sympathetic to labor concerns. I don't want to get all political here, but the success of the Republican party over the past 28 years is largely due to a complete lack of sympathy for organized labor.

Honestly, I think the standard sport journalism theme on this is one that can be summed up with, "Can you believe this guy? Six million ain't enough?"

Levi Stahl said...

I'm more or less with Rob, adding two specific points:

1) People don't really know, or think about, how much the owners make. They have a vague sense that they're rich, but--in part because ownership groups are now more common (I think?) than specific owners--it's all a little unclear. Whereas they know exactly how much Adam Dunn makes--and all for striking out all the time! And playing a game! A game that they, too, could play!

2) The rise in player salaries is tied, in the casual fan's mind, to the general sense that players move around too much, that, unlike in the old days, your casual fan never knows who these guys on the team he roots for are. Now, that's almost certainly not really true, just as the sense of a stable past is also a nostalgic fiction, but try shaking that impression from the dude next to you in the stands next time you're at a game. You'll need extra innings.

Andy said...

I don't see how the draft is any different really from any other job, partly because I tend to think of MLB as a single entity rather than 30 competing businesses. If you want to play major league baseball, you put yourself up for the draft. If you don't like it, then good luck with your second career choice.

Imagine a law school grad fresh out of a Supreme Court clerkship. He wants to work for a big firm in DC that argues cases before the Court. He demands to be made partner from day 1. They probably decline, and explain that the firm has a 8 year partnership track. I don't think that's much different from ball player waiting out his arbitration years.

A second reason the draft doesn't bother me is that I do think it helps competitive balance, and on the grand scale of injustices, the baseball draft ranks pretty low. Off the list, really, and not worth getting upset about.

Finally, while money is certainly part of the reason fans don't relate to players on these issues, I think its also because even with a draft, players have more leverage than most people. They still negotiate. If you work at Wal-Mart, you get the $9.00/hour they offer, take it or leave it.

Mike said...

The problem is he starts by stating that Americans are sympathetic toward Labor. Not sure what country he's living in, but it's not the America I live in. There is a segment that tolerates Labor, but the majority is not sympathetic toward it at all.

tadthebad said...

"I don't want to get all political here, but the success of the Republican party over the past 28 years is largely due to a complete lack of sympathy for organized labor." You don't think there are many other reasons for that party's all comes down to how one feels about labor? Pretty shortsighted.

Rob said...

Tad - Nice straw man there. There are obviously many reasons for the success of the Republican party, but it's safe to say that sympathy for organized labor is not one of them.

To the extent that Americans are "prone to sympathizing with labor concerns in just about every walk of life", it certainly hasn't been expressed at the voting booth.

Peter said...

andy - in the case of the law school grad, the entire industry doesn't have a mandated 8-year partnership track. If one firm wants to offer him a shorter track, it's free to do so and nobody would suggest that he shouldn't be allowed to take it.

The Wal Mart example is interesting but not a good analogy for Major League Baseball. The Wal Mart worker has the ability to market his skills to CVS, Walgreens, KMart, Target, etc. MLB is a government-protected monopoly, so if you aren't willing to play by their rules, "good luck on your second career choice" is right.

The two major factors I see in the public's sympathy toward ownership are:
1. The owners' profits are hard to determine. They don't disclose the numbers, and even if they did, franchise value appreciation and tax benefits would be left out. As a result, it's easy for ownership groups, especially in smaller towns, to claim poverty.
2. We know that players make huge amounts of money, so we aren't really sympathetic when they want more, especially if they're unproven (as is the case with the draft) -- even if someone is willing to pay them more.

These two factors make it easy for owners to blame competitive imbalance on the players. Fans just want to see a competitive league, and since they're already unsympathetic toward players making millions, it's easy for them to just say "These greedy players are ruining the game."

Craig Calcaterra said...

And to follow on Peter's point, the Tribune Company bought the Cubs for $20M. They are now about to sell it for a billion. No fan, I think, is going to take issue with that.

I would like to defend Diesel on one point, and that's his comment about people being prone to sympathy on labor issues. I don't think he meant to suggest that people in this country are, on a broad basis, pro-labor. I think he was getting at is that in any industry other than baseball, when a particular labor issue crops up, people will tend to at least assess the issues, and on a case by case basis may find themselves taking labor's side. In contrast, there is almost a knee-jerk anti-union vibe when it comes to sports unions.

Is it understandable? Sure, because the issues Tom Glavine is fighting over don't literally impact whether or not he's going to be able to feed his family. But the general dynamic (fair wages and working conditions for value provided) is the same.

Rob said...

Of course, the whole purpose of draftees requesting ML contracts is to shorten their servitude because the ML contract forces the team to use option years immediately. So there is a mechanism to shorten the 6-year-to-9-year "track" as it were, and some of the very best prospects do, in fact, use it.

(As I understand it, draftees getting a ML contract have to be put on the 40-man roster and any year they spend in the minors is an option year. Teams only get three option years, so the player would have to clear waivers in order to be sent down after the third year.)

rob said...

Let's not forget also the whole, "Dog Bites Man" aspect of the rich, greedy owner who makes millions of dollars off of their baseball team and the lazy sportswriters who would rather write "the story" than "the facts".

tadthebad said...

Rob, agree with your counterpoint. Additionally, I wonder if people are less sympathetic to professional sports labor because 1) they don't identify with it, as has been referenced in other comments, and 2) they don't view such labor as critical or necessary to the overall health of the economy.

rob said...

Tad - I'd also add that the self-centered nature of fandom (e.g., using "we" when referring to the team) also puts hold-outs into a negative light. Anyone not willing to take millions of dollars to come play for the local nine is perceived as a jerk because they sticking it to the (or "our") team.

The flip side of this is when owners threaten to relocate. I'd say that the typical reaction to those events is pretty anti-ownership.

Andy said...

I don't think MLB is the industry - baseball, or even athletics is the industry. MLB is simply the most desirable job within the industry.

Plenty of people get transferred in their job to places they don't want to go. They have to decide if they like the job enough and the pay is high enough to make a move worthwhile. Few people who aren't self-employed are guaranteed the chance to work where they want for the salary they want.

So I don't think people get worked up about the draft and the labor situation because plenty of people are subject to the whims of their employers.

tadthebad said...

Rob, the use of "we" to reflect one's favorite team is a pet-peeve of mine. Your observation about such self-centered fandom is echoed here.