It seems so ridiculously simple that we even have to remind ourselves of it, but it’s worth going back to the well: LeBron James is special, and irreplaceable. Kobe Bryant is worth the price of admission, and Anthony Davis is something to click over to 82 times a year.
NBA owners are the complete opposite of everything I listed above. They might do glorious work in their other professions, trampling over others on their way toward accruing enough money to purchase an NBA team as a toy to tool around with, but they are quite replaceable. Even the NBA owners that have made great strides and smart moves while working with their chosen toy – take Dallas’ Mark Cuban for example – can still be replaced at some point by someone who has learned from the advancements of their predecessor.
New NBA players' union executive director Michele Roberts, in anticipation of yet another labor impasse between the players and the league in 2017, decided to re-iterate such a point in an interview with Pablo Torre of ESPN the Magazine:
"Why don't we have the owners play half the games?" Roberts said, speaking in her Harlem office to ESPN The Magazine. "There would be no money if not for the players."
"Let's call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money," she added, pausing for emphasis. "Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. These guys [the players] go? The game will change. So let's stop pretending."
From there, Roberts tore into the sporting world’s great house of cards – the salary cap.
Sports fans who bristle at all manner of anti-capitalist leanings in the political or business world routinely side with leagues and team owners when it comes to capping salaries for players who could and usually should earn far more than they’re making. Sports fans who pair face-painting and American flag lapel pin-wearing suddenly turn into crusty old Bolsheviks when it comes to taking free-market enterprise out of the sports they love.
"I don't know of any space other than the world of sports where there's this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone's able to make, just because," she said, talking about a salary cap -- a collectively bargained policy that, in its current form, has constrained team spending in the NBA since 1984-85. "It's incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it."
The rookie wage scale, she argued, is also problematic, as are max contracts, another entrenched restriction of the NBA's free market that Roberts wants dissolved.
"I can't understand why the [players' association] would be interested in suppressing salaries at the top if we know that as salaries at the top have grown, so have salaries at the bottom," she said. "If that's the case, I contend that there is no reason in the world why the union should embrace salary caps or any effort to place a barrier on the amount of money that marquee players can make."
To that end, the NBA released a strongly worded response early on Thursday afternoon:
(Man, 2017 is gonna be sweet!)
As the NBA noted, the league and its players have both legally signed off on several collective bargaining agreements that have capped salaries for teams. Furthermore, the players and the league have also signed off on three different collective bargaining agreements since 1999 that have instituted personal salary caps for individual players, in attempts to sustain a relative middle class amongst the NBA’s payroll ranks.
A cadre of NBA stars, most notably led by agent David Falk, virulently opposed such a move during the league’s 1998-99 lockout, but the opposition wasn’t nearly as strong in 2005 and 2011 because an entire generation of NBA players had grown up with the idea that stars can make only so much money. Even while cognizant of the idea that, in an open market, LeBron James could probably pull an entire salary cap’s worth of pay per year (provided such a team with room existed – and it would) if there were no limits on individual salaries.
This all harkens back to the fascinating back and forth between players and owners that will never end. It will never end as long as the American sporting fan base continues to support relatively faceless owners in comparison to the purportedly spoiled athletes who are paid handsomely to perform a child’s game on television.
American sports fans – who by majority resemble the race and gender of nearly all of the NBA’s 30 team owners – have played by two sets of figurative rules when it comes to their own personal political and ethical beliefs, and what they believe sports player unions should work by. It’s going to be fantastic to see Michele Roberts, picking up the pieces left by her incompetent predecessor, chip away at this sort of incongruity.
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