It is rare that an athlete becomes known more for what he has above the ears than what he does above the rim. My memory is short but it seems that only Adonal Foyle, David Robinson, J.J. Reddick, Jim Brown, and Etan Thomas are widely known as athletes in an elite class intellectually.
SlamOnline has made the last athlete I mentioned a regular columnist on their site. As a fan, I love this. One, it offers a unique perspective on the NBA â€“ one not entirely dedicated to stats and machismo. Two, it is a direct shot at the stereotype of the ignorant, thug athlete.
His latest posting (the 2nd one Iâ€™ve seen) deals with the importance of NBA labor knowing and exercising their power to attain their interests over and against the owners. In reading Mr. Thomasâ€™ writings on the issue Iâ€™m struck by how poorly Etan can view issues beyond his own position. My conclusion is that he speaks articulately but not necessarily intelligently to the issue.
His thesis is found in the seventh paragraph:
A wise man once said, “Know the business of the business you’re in.” It is imperative that my colleagues become fully aware and avoid a state of complacency. We cannot be trapped in an illusion that the fruits we enjoy now will forever be plentiful and abundant. Things can and will change right before our eyes if we don’t stand up and fight.
Fair enough. Labor needs to be informed. Itâ€™s down hill from here.
First off, apparently David Stern is trying to kill the NBA. You didnâ€™t know? Let Etan inform you:
What Commissioner Stern will attempt to employ, if we allow him to, will devastate the future of our league as we know it. Collectively, we have a strong voice, but if we don’t understand the rules, how can we play the game? If we didn’t understand that legally David Stern was in direct violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement by changing the ball, we would have been rendered powerless. We would have been left to our complaints, which would have fallen on deaf ears.
I find this a strange assertion, considering that Commissioner Stern is considered one of the better Commissioners in the major sports leagues. While Etan doesnâ€™t initially offer the reader any idea of what this bleak Stern-led future would look like, he does give an example of another professional sports league which he associates with Sternâ€™s vision:
The league would love to transform us into the NFL, and they will continue to attempt to chip away at guaranteed contracts.
Oh no! Transform the NBA into something resembling the most popular domestic professional sports league? Well horrors upon horrors. Mean olâ€™ Stern, wanting to take away guaranteed contracts. Amazing how limiting guaranteed money in the NFL has created more parity and thus driven interest in the sport in to the stratosphere â€“ I would have never guess that was a bad thing, for owners or labor. Okay, so if the NFL is the 7 layer of the Inferno and Guaranteed Contracts are a good thing, where should we look to find an example of a professional sports league doing things the right way?
No disrespect to Billy Hunter, because I think he is doing a wonderful job fighting for us, but I feel we should consider examining baseball’s example, maybe even actually having a sit-down with their union to see exactly what they did to make their group so strong. I look at their union with eyes of admiration, because that’s how a union should beâ€¦ the baseball players are strict about players who act in ways that are detrimental to the union. If a player has a secret meeting when “they” pull you to the side to divulge information, or if a player speaks out of turn to the media (we should have a gag order) or crosses the line in any way, that player is out of the union. No longer protected nor allowed to partake in any of the benefits that come along with being in the union. We should have our own zero tolerance policy.
In reading Thomasâ€™ posting I was thinking that he was merely naÃ¯ve. I thought that until I read what I just quoted. First, Baseball should be no oneâ€™s example of how a professional sports league should be run nor held up as the example of how a good union takes care of itself. MLB has increasingly seen its popularity dwindle, recording â€“ I believe Iâ€™m correct here â€“ the two lowest viewed World Series telecasts in the last two years. Their money management system has created the clearest example of a â€œhaves and have notsâ€ league, with very little parity and many franchises with despondent fan bases which simply survive on profit sharing revenue. Maybe Etan should take a trip to Kansas City and examine the Royals to see what a wonder MLB is. Secondly, the players union in baseball is the sporting equivalent of the inmates running the asylum. Their resistance to steroid testing is deplorable and the players are a big reason why baseball isnâ€™t attracting new fans. Great model there.
Secondly, and it was at this point my jaw dropped, Etan apparently wants to create an environment where loyalty to The Union supplants even constitutional freedoms. He wants an NBA â€œstrict about players who act in ways that are detrimental to the union.â€ Question: What if what is detrimental to the union is good for the player? He actually uses the phrase â€œspeaks out of turnâ€ to describe someone speaking publicly about their sport and profession. If that werenâ€™t shocking enough he issues a call for â€œa gag orderâ€ which would limit an individualâ€™s ability to exercise their constitutionally granted right to free speech. What would he use to punish those who donâ€™t conform; who would dare speak independently of The Union? Well, that player would be â€œout of the union. No longer protected nor allowed to partake in any of the benefits that come along with being in the union. We should have our own zero tolerance policy.â€ I am honestly horrified as I read that.
Communism has come to the NBA lockeroom.
It is apparently without any sense of his own hypocrisy (or even irony) that Etan goes on to state that the players must be willing to fight the status quo.
If we don’t rebel, don’t voice our disapprovals, don’t know what we can legally do, don’t have a unified front, believe me, they will not listen. Nobody wants a lock out, but they have to know that we mean business. Then, it never even has to come to that. We can simply work together respectfullyâ€¦ It is imperative that we fight to preserve this league.
Iâ€™m not sure how one can reconcile rebelling and fighting (Etanâ€™s words) with working together respectfully. Either way, it is amazing that Etan would in the first minute call for complete solidarity (with harsh consequences for those who fail to obey) and in the next demand a vigorous rebellion to get what he wants. Wonder if he would view an individual rebelling against The Union in such a noble light as he views his own struggle to create the communistic utopian NBA.
I earlier mentioned how poorly Etan sees beyond his own nose. The concept of professional sports isnâ€™t hard to grasp. Professional athletics are sports played by elite practitioners of that sport. The players are compensated for their efforts by owners of the teams they play for who generate their profits (and thus the money to pay the players) from funds collected from the people who purchase tickets to watch teams play one another as well as merchandise related to the teams.
The fans like parity (on the whole) â€“ they like seeing good matchups in every game between two teams where either can beat the other. The NFL (AKA Etanâ€™s Beast of the Apocalypse) does a wonderful job through their salary cap of creating parity. Thus, fans get what they want, thus interest grows, thus more money is spent on tickets and merchandise (not to mention television rights, etc), and thus the league and players profit. On the other hand you have baseball (aka Etanâ€™s High Ideal) which is set up to discourage parity. Teams with wealthy markets stay good, teams in smaller markets stay bad (because of the disparity of revenue available to invest in the on-field product) so you have a handful of teams in the running each year, and many franchises who are never competitors (and thus miserable fans.)
I wonder how a player, benefiting to such a ridiculous degree from a properly run system, could turn as Etan has and bite the hand that feeds him. The fans are the ones who make it possible for the players to pocket the big checks. Thus, it would be in Etanâ€™s best interest (and the leagueâ€™s future, which he says he is so concerned about) to give fans what they want and stop trying to create an environment where only the players have a voice in the direction of the league. If he wants himself, his co-workers, and future players to have an opportunity to play a game for more money than the average fan will see in a decade then heâ€™ll stop trying to create The NBA Player State and start asking how to improve the game for the fans.
Thatâ€™s my main rant. The other, and smaller, problem with Etanâ€™s writing is his subtle and poorly grounded shots at the Bush administration and conservative ideology.
Creating an overall illusion – no matter how off base or completely wrong it is – can change the public perception of what is being implemented. Furthermore, it can garner support for something the implementer knows is wrong. We saw this with the invasion of Iraq, but that’s another essay. Knowledge is power, and people perish for lack of knowledge.
The league would love to transform us into the NFL, and they will continue to attempt to chip away at guaranteed contracts. During his attempt to gain “cost certainty,” the Commissioner has previously offered during collective bargaining to simply pay one guaranteed amount and allow the players to divide it among ourselves – so long as the amount is fixed in advance, and the owners need not pay even a dollar more than the guaranteed amount. In essence, that would completely cut out the NBA’s middle class. (Interesting how there are so many parallels to a certain administration.)
If you get injured, do they want the right to cut you like in the NFL? They try to win players over during the bargaining process, arguing that guaranteed dollars paid to “undeserving” players takes away from the pool of available dollars that could be paid to “deserving” players. (This is similar to the argument that taxing the rich punishes them for being rich.) Meaning if you have a bad year, they can rip up your contract and force you to sign a new one or be waived, like in the NFL.
The problem here is first that he sticks these baseless accusations into his writings on unrelated subjects without defending them, yet obviously treats them as if they are objectively true, rather than simply his own poorly founded opinion. He is well within the bounds of his freedoms at Slam to write what he chooses. However, that doesnâ€™t mean what he writes has much value. Furthermore, it is disappointing to read someone viewed as on the intellectual giants of the NBA parroting such tired, played out rhetoric. I would expect someone with a discerning mind to be able to do more than simply record and regurgitate unfounded or illogical accusations that have long ago been demonstrated to be false. Lastly, his insistence on stepping into areas which he repeatedly demonstrates he knows little of exposes his commitment to liberal ideology despite the clear truth of the matter (for instance, higher tax rates for the wealthy is clearly, in a practical sense, punishment for being rich). While it is refreshing, I suppose, to hear an athlete discussing larger social issues the positive is lost amidst the wash of poor style and thought. Perhaps the editors at Slam should encourage Etan to stick to subjects he knows more about and refrain from looping poor, long-ago exposed political drivel. Perhaps more poetry?