It’s Not the Money

Contrary to what the commentators on ESPN and Sports Illustrated are saying, the dispute between the players and the owners that is preventing baseball from coming to an agreement on how to have a 2020 season, is not about the money.  Everybody says it’s about money.  It’s about power.  America’s oligarchs hate employees having the slightest modicum of leverage.  The owners want to “break” the players, want to make them eat shit–and they will happily forego the season (and “damage the game” as all the commentators keep piously saying) to prove they hold the whip.

Not only are the sums they are haggling over risible in relation to the owners’ wealth (none of the stories even divides the gross sum by thirty to show what each individual owner’s losses would be), but (as a Five Thirty Eight article has shown in detail) the owners are also with 99% certainty lying about the financial hit they would take. [] That, of course, is why the owners refuse to open their books to the players.

Another Five Thirty Eight article shows that the average player has a career of less than four years (thus failing to meet the five year minimum for a pension and other lifetime benefits) and makes less than two million dollars total. [] And that is after losing money during their years of minor league play, where they do not receive a living wage.

This all, of course, is par for the course in the world of “private equity”: no accountability accompanied by every imaginable dodge to evade taxes, strip value, and move money from the bottom up to the top.

Equity is the operative term here. The owners’ complaints about lost revenue are mostly a red herring.  Owning a baseball team is more like owning a house than owning a business.  The big return on investment is not from revenue, but from the growth in the value of the franchise over time.  You cash in big time when you sell the team, not during the years that you own it.  Plus you get the status of belonging to one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. Only thirty members.

The fury against workers on the part of employers (how wonderful that in baseball they are called “owners”) is part of the ugliness of our time, when the worst impulses of the powerful are openly, even proudly, on display–and the relentlessness of their sadism (a greediness that gains its edge, its frisson, by being augmented by cruelty) dismays, appalls, and baffles.  Such an expenditure of energy on nastiness.  Don’t the uber-rich have better ways to spend their time and money?  What happened to pleasure?

The players’ resolute (thus far) stand really is the proletariat striking back.  And similar to the ways that George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests have changed perceptions of racism and the police, the needle of public opinion has moved somewhat (although not quite enough).  Unlike what happened in previous labor disputes in baseball, this time the players are not getting all the blame from the public.  Opinion is more divided, although nowhere close to all in the players’ favor.  The success of neoliberal ideology is manifest every time the public echoes the hatred of unions–a hatred that goes hand-in-glove with the concerted efforts by business (aided by the courts, Congress, and the regulatory state) over the past eighty years to destroy unions.

Milton Friedman claimed capitalism could not be discriminatory because that interfered with economic efficiency.  Surely, some competitor would arise who didn’t have those sexist, racist, and/or religious biases and would, because more profitable, drive the discriminators from the field.  Laughable in its naiveté and in the ability of theory to blind you to what is right there in front of your eyes.

The overlords hate it when people get “uppity”—whether the offenders are workers or people of color or “the weaker sex.”  Keeping—or putting—people back in their place is priceless, a motive worth every penny lost for it.  The economic history of the American South shows that Friedman, in a certain way, was right.  Discrimination does lead to poorer economic outcomes.  But the profit motive isn’t strong enough to overcome the will to discrimination.  The baseball owners will bite off their nose to spite their face.  They will destroy baseball rather than enter into a partnership with their players, a partnership that would introduce a modicum of equality into the relationship between capital and labor.

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