The help

Quick note: One good way to follow the O’Bannon trial in more or less real time is via Patrick Hruby’s twitter feed.

Just wanted to point to J. A. Adande’s excellent column yesterday about LeBron and the making of this Heat dynasty (I think it qualifies, whether or not it wins this series. Your mileage may vary). Adande picks apart the silly trope that what defines this (and last year’s) NBA championship series is how the two teams were constructed – “built vs. bought.” The Spurs, so it goes, went the EF Hutton route and built their team the “old-fashioned” way and, therefore, “earned it.” The Heat, of course, put together a championship by landing the best player in the game via free agency (as well as another A-list player, Chris Bosh).

Adande is dismissive:

Notice there wasn’t any talk of taking shortcuts to championships when the Boston Celtics brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen for the 2007-08 season, or when the Dallas Mavericks had paid more in player salaries than the Heat when they beat them in the 2011 Finals. And if you’re going strictly by payrolls, celebrate the $80 million Heat for knocking off the $102 million Brooklyn Nets in the second round. Or save your mockery for the New York Knicks, whose $88 million expenditure this season couldn’t buy them a spot in the playoffs.

Since when does America cherish being told where to work (via draft or trade) over choosing your own employer?

Apparently, since the Heat got together.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon – the general bias in American culture and society in favor of the owners of wealth to exercise their prerogatives and the attendant expectation that workers should be thankful for their lots in life and, therefore, should not step out of line in asserting their own. There are plenty of folks who don’t like this state of affairs but still see it as in the natural course of things and regard attempts to challenge these arrangements as dangerous. When it comes to sports, it becomes especially easy to focus one’s ire on players’ greed, while taking for granted that, of course, the owners are going to be filthy rich. After all,  from the standpoint of the average American male sports fan, who’s living the dream more than a star athlete? One important point to remember, though, is that the distributional conflicts in sports are not, in general, between players and fans (which is always the owners’ preferred framing). They’re between players and owners. Ticket prices don’t go up because owners are paying higher salaries, despite what the owners tell you. They go up because demand for them increases. Whether a player or not a player is “selfish” for refusing to sacrifice some of his salary to help his team stay under the salary cap, or to sign another player, the player faces that choice because the owners insisted on that cap in the first place.

They did so not because they care competitive balance. They bargained for caps on labor costs in order to make more money for themselves. How is this relevant to “built vs. bought?” Because there’s no hardscrabble road to success in the NBA, no David vs. Goliath, no “old school” values versus new-fangled, “unearned” success. Just a group of mind-numbingly wealthy men, some of whom have built better, more attractive organizations than others in order to lure championship talent.

It comforts some folks to feel like, in San Antonio, “the inmates” aren’t running the asylum. But that way of looking at things is just one big distraction.

And yes, many of these same dynamics are at play in the NCAA’s defense of “amateurism” and the “collegiate model” – that we’re all better off when the help knows its place.





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