Two recent political sports stories

January 25, 2012 – 1:15 pm by John

Boston Bruins’ goaltender and last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner (Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP) Tim Thomas declined to visit the White House to celebrate his team’s Stanley Cup championship last season. His reasons were basically political, as he detailed in a Facebook message:

I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.

This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.

Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL.

Well, he said it wasn’t about politics or party, but what he meant was that it wasn’t about his party vs. the party in the White House. Obviously it’s exactly about politics.

I commend Tim Thomas for having the political awareness and principles to oppose both political parties, to the extent that he really does (he’s an outspoken Tea Partier), and opposing the whole political-power machine run by the Republocrats in Washington. Outside of the political discussion, though, it’s hard to say whether I think it was a good idea or a bad idea for him to skip the White House visit that the rest of his team attended. I lean towards bad, because he plays a team sport and should put his politics aside for team matters and sports-related events. On the other hand, perhaps he would say he protests the entire idea of championship teams being celebrated at the White House and congratulated by the president because, as his teammates and others have opined, there is no place for politics in sports. He or I might say, “You think there should be no politics in sports? I agree. No team should go to the White House for a celebration because we shouldn’t idolize that office and its power so much.” On the third hand, in a closer-to-ideal world, the president and the White House might busy themselves with frivolous matters like hosting sports teams instead of spending that time intruding into our lives, taking our money, and violating our rights.

The other story that was only marginally politics-related (but isn’t at everything at least marginally politics-related, thanks to the nature of all governments today?) was the decision the Indianapolis Colts and their future-hall-of-fame quarterback Peyton Manning face. The reason I think it’s politics-related is because of the employer–employee relationship between Colts ownership and Manning and the relationship between owners and the NFL Players’ Union.

Manning started every game at quarterback for the Colts from when he was drafted in 1998 through the 2010–11 season but hasn’t played a down since last season’s playoffs because of a neck injury that has required multiple surgeries. Obviously, with a neck injury, especially one that takes this long to heal, any athlete’s future is in major doubt. He has stated that he wants to finish his career with the Colts and also hinted that he doesn’t feel like he’s done playing football. However, he would have to receive a contract extension from the Colts sometime in February or early March in order to stay with the Colts. Andrew Brandt summarizes their positions nicely:

The Colts must affirmatively exercise an option clause to continue to have Manning’s services for 2012 through 2015. The window of time for which that option must be exercised is between “two days following the Super Bowl until five days prior to the 2012 League Year.” … Thus, the Colts must exercise the option to keep Manning—or not—in a one month period between February 7th and March 8th.
[…]
The structure of Manning’s contract shows a clear intent by [Tom Condon, Manning’s agent] and Manning: they wanted the Colts to commit to Manning—or allow him his freedom—beyond 2011.

Manning and Condon have forced the Colts to essentially choose between two contracts for Manning: (1) a one-year, $26.4 million deal for 2011 [which has already passed and which he was already paid for], or (2) a five-year, $90 million deal with $70 million in the first three years.

Manning and Condon were determined to not allow the Colts a structure that allowed them an exit after Manning reached a certain age of expected decline, a fate experienced by accomplished NFL players every year.
[…]
Thus, if the option is exercised [by the Colts, choosing to extend Manning’s contract], on top of the $26.4 million Manning made in 2011 [for not playing a down], Manning’s earnings for the two-year period of 2011-12 will be almost $62 million. He will be a Colt for the life of his career and be paid more than any player in the NFL for such career.

I often wonder, in considering the employer–employee relationship in professional sports and the role of players’ unions, what things other people with various political beliefs see wrong and right, good and bad with their employment situations, union negotiations, union and ownership power, and salaries. Obviously it’s pretty hard to ever feel sorry for someone who made $26 million in hard cash in one year or feel like they were wronged in any way, regardless of the turns his career takes.

But I could see some indignant sports-traditionalists (who wish athletes and teams would show more loyalty to each other) and some strong anti-corporatists (who think owners and management have too much power over players) criticizing many things about the Manning/Colts situation. They might say the ownership is being typically crass and greedy by not rewarding Manning for his loyalty and decade-plus of stellar service by giving him the contract he deserves. They might say it’s typical of ownership to get rid of a player as soon as he starts going downhill, revealing how much more the players need the team than the team needs the players and showing once again how unfairly power is distributed in the modern corporate world. They might even say it’s illegitimate for a single owner, company, or group of owners to own any business and that any wealth accumulated by one person into the hundred-million-dollar range must have been ill-gotten (State-assisted).

I won’t expound upon the last position here except to say the first half of it is wrong and the second half usually right. What I will refute is the assertion of greediness, crassness, or unfairness on the part of the Colts owner, Jim Irsay, and his management team. Thankfully, players’ unions in all American team sports have gained power and influence such that they can stand up for their players’ rights, legal protections, negotiated benefits, and ability to sell their services to the highest bidder on the market. Unions are the main reason athletes make so much money today, and more power to them. But with the power and the right to earn the best contract possible via free agency, the players also have to give up something(s) to the owners. Basically, the form this takes is that players treat teams as the source of their highest possible lifetime income, and owners run their teams like businesses and treat the players like numbers in an account sheet. The players have almost surely gained more than the owners with the flourishing of free agency, and possibly (hopefully) gained at the expense of a lot of owner power and money, but they can’t have their cake and eat it too. They can’t realistically sell themselves to the highest bidder almost invariably and negotiate contracts that pay them millions of dollars for not playing at all, while still being treated loyally and warmly by owners.

This reminds me of another recent free agent signing, in baseball: Albert Pujols signed a 10-year, $250-million contract with the Anaheim Angels, the second-highest-paying contract in sports history, instead of staying his whole career in St. Louis, the best baseball town in America and the team he won two World Series with. I had hoped he would stay in St. Louis, but the Cardinals didn’t want to pay him that much. Slightly differently from Peyton Manning, Pujols was the one who didn’t remain loyal to his team rather than the other way around. (The Cardinals offered him a large contract, but the Angels almost certainly overpaid for him.) It would be ridiculous and inconsistent to say that a player should try to get the best deal possible but the team shouldn’t also try to maximize its value. That’s what both the Cardinals and Pujols did, and that meant they had to split ways. I’m sure Arte Moreno of Anaheim thought he was maximizing his (team’s) value, but I doubt it.

This also reminds me of Tom Glavine’s defection from the Braves to the Mets after the 2002 season. One important fact about Glavine is that he was the most vocal players’ union representative throughout the 1990s, including during the 1994 strike negotiations and strike. (I always thought he was like the highest-ranking player in the union, followed by David Cone, always at the forefront of the negotiations and speaking to the press on behalf of the players. Maybe it was less official than that, though.) After he and the players’ union negotiated so toughly and spoke out so vocally about player salaries and benefits, Glavine of all people couldn’t realistically stay with his loving and beloved Braves for a dollar less than any other team was offering him. He had to take the largest contract offered to him, despite the fact that he pretty much hated the Mets (as much as most baseball players can hate another team these days) and the fact that it would sour Braves fans’ opinion of him for a long time. But he couldn’t take such a hard line in union negotiations in favor of player salaries and benefits and then go take a lesser contract in order to remain loyal to his team. Otherwise, owners and general managers could say, “Ah! Look at your vocal, outspoken, tough negotiator, Tom Glavine! He apparently cares more about loyalty than money! So we know players aren’t so devoted to the almighty dollar as they pretend to be.” Players can’t have that, because they are devoted entirely to the almighty dollar, at least most of them, as are most owners. (It turned out that Glavine was awful with the Mets, probably because of some combination of regret and complacency, except in 2006, so the Mets also overpaid for him.)

This reminds me of yet another player-contract situation, this past season in the NFL. Tennessee Titans running back and current fastest man in the NFL Chris Johnson held out during training camp to negotiate a bigger contract/contract extension. When the Titans finally paid him and he joined the team, he had a crappy year. He might have a great next three years, but this year, they definitely overpaid for him. Johnson and many others say that this simply makes up for him being underpaid in previous years, which is also true. That’s why players have the ability to hold out and negotiate for contract extensions/improvements in the middle of a contract. The short average career of running backs in the NFL is the main reason running backs want to get paid as soon as they can, as soon after a great season as possible. If they just wait until their first contract is up, either their performance will have started to decline or owners will expect it to start declining soon, and they will have gotten underpaid for the best years of their career without ever getting overpaid after.

What the Chris Johnson holdout/huge contract/crappy season did was lower the stock of all other running backs who were in a position to start negotiating a new contract during the 2011 season and 2012 offseason. Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears will almost certainly not get a high-paying contract extension during this offseason or, possibly, at any time in the future. He sprained his MCL last month and missed the rest of the season, although it is not a career-threatening injury. All throughout the season, Forte wanted a contract extension from the Bears, but many talking heads said Chris Johnson’s shortcomings were Exhibit A among the Bears’ reasons to offer their running back considerably less money than he wanted. He was their best player and will probably get a good extension, just not really, really high-paying. Management saw what a giant contract did for the best running back in football, so they are understandably wary of a similar outcome with Forte. Who can blame them? Who can blame any team for wanting to maximize the value it gets out of its salary payments? Who can blame any athlete for wanting to get overpaid for a period of time after getting underpaid before?

All the Indianapolis Colts and owner Irsay can do is maximize the value of the salary they pay their quarterbacks. If they exercise Manning’s option, they might very well pay him $35 million in 2012 without him playing a single down. If he does play, he might be much worse than he used to be. Their team certainly sucks, which is why they are in a position to draft quarterback Andrew Luck with the first pick in the upcoming draft. If they keep Manning and draft Luck, they will pay their top two quarterbacks $50 million in 2012 alone. They just paid their quarterbacks $32 million in 2011 for a horrible, miserable collective performance. That was partly the fault of the head coach and general manager, who have now been fired for failing to assemble and lead a team that could even function without Manning. Obviously that means he’s worth a lot—or rather, has been worth a lot—but maybe the combination of the salary he’s demanding and his uncertain future means it’s time to fire Manning, too.

If they did, it would be the result of value maximization on both sides, which basically amounts to market forces. If Peyton Manning really wants to stay in Indianapolis, he will have to do it at a salary Jim Irsay agrees upon, just as Irsay and all owners have to keep players or sign new ones by offering them the money it will take to sign them. The owner must offer the (ideally, lowest) money and contract length it takes to sign the player, and conversely, the player must offer the immediate and future value it takes to earn the (ideally, highest-paying and longest-term) contract a team will offer. It has always been like this and should continue to be like this in contract negotiations, especially when the salary recipient is supported by a union. Or maybe especially especially when they aren’t supported by a union (ideally…but we all know that’s not always likely in our current corporate–State socialist world).

Maybe if restrictive, market-perturbing labor laws were repealed, unions no longer colluded with governments, and self-employment and other non-traditional forms of employment were allowed to flourish in our society—in a free society—all workers from all walks of life would have more and better opportunities to maximize the value of their employment, in terms of both their compensation and the wealth they produce for others.

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