BY VERN TURNER
Why did the reserve clause last so long in professional baseball? Slavery was abolished in 1865 yet the owners of major league baseball teams could deny a player a living if he chose not to play for that team after his contract expired.
It wasn’t exactly slavery, but it smacked of overt and absolute control over the professional career of players. The players were treated as property – as slaves were – of the team and the owners could dispense with their services at their pleasure.
What made it worse was that the owners were in collusion; that is, one owner wouldn’t pick up a player who walked out on his reserve clause contract with a different owner. The player was blackballed.
It took the embarrassment of the Curt Flood ordeal to expose the nation to this fiasco. He sued Major League Baseball because he didn’t want to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies from the St. Louis Cardinals. He was property and had no say as to where he could play.
MLB and the Supreme Court stood by the reserve clause until Marvin Miller and the new Major League Players Association finally found a test case to take before the courts and make the reserve clause obsolete. The introduction of free agency into the game was still thwarted by the collusion between the owners to not recognize free agents and refuse to offer them a contract after they declared. Investigators uncovered the collusion and MLB was obliged to pay a few hundred million dollars in restitution.
Sports are cool. I love sports. I played most sports at one time or another, some of them fairly well. Sports are an integral part of modern [and ancient] human cultures around the world. Humans have always, it seems, created simulations of survival skills and necessities and competed against one another in order to improve those skills.
Today’s modern, Western sports bear little resemblance to those in Mongolia, say, where performing complex skills on horseback is the major inter-group entertainment or rite of passage.
So, why am I writing this commentary?
I think the merger of capitalism and sport has exceeded the limits of appreciation of the sport and become a profit center for those who run sports. I’m including so-called amateur sports like the NCAA-sponsored sports programs that exploit the athletes for huge money-making programs.
Making money seems to be more important in some sports than making better people or better entertainment values.
Now, I’m not knocking making money from sports, but the volume of it in the mix is perverting the spirit and intent of sport for the audiences who watch it, pay for it and make it part of their social fabric. I’m good with all that … but the volume of money involved begs the question whether or not that has become the game rather than the game.
Recently, the NFL has added new rules for “the safety of the players” that require their part-time officials to adjudicate at warp speed whether or not one player has intended to injure another while being coached to do just that either through “incentive programs” like the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system, or by the raging bullying and “toughening up” of players by other players to “win at all costs” as the Miami Dolphins were exposed as doing.
The NFL is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, but refuses to spend a few million dollars on full-time officiating. It keeps searching for new TV contracts, merchandising deals and foreign sales of the game and builds new stadiums on the public’s dime to enrich the owners further.
Yes, the players are paid very, very well, but their physical abuse from the sport is ruining careers and lives on an increasing level. Is this intended to just sell more beer, cell phones and cars on TV?
Using professional athletes in Olympic Games has cheapened the games to the point of them being just another commercial enterprise. Watching the American version on TV is an exercise in avoiding huge number of commercials so that the viewer can hold the context of the game/match/event in mind.
No, the athletes are not paid by the Olympics committees to participate, but they are “supported” by their sponsors to train and win medals. Those athletes who play for pro sports teams also may have merchandise contracts wherein they represent equipment companies in commercials before and after the games.
I do not begrudge the athletes from participating and getting rich in the process. It is, after all, their bodies that get beat up, their personal lives that get invaded by the media and fans: the personal price they pay is compensated by money.
Is that enough? If it is, they’ll keep doing it. Good for them. I love watching great athletes perform in sports, professional or otherwise. Are the athletes worth the compensation packages they get? Sure they are. It’s what the capitalistic market bears. But who pays the freight?
We, the fan base, pay the freight. We buy the high ticket prices for a few hours of entertainment. We allow our minds to be rotted by stupid commercials. We buy the team logo clothing. We pay for autographs and memorabilia. We pay outrageous amounts of money for bubble gum cards of people who have been dead 100 years.
We are the audience. We root them on. We cheer the hard hits and groan for the injuries – whether sincere or not. We go to the race tracks to wait for the crashes. We have created this sports monster that consumes us and our non-working free time.
Maybe we’d be a little better off if we watched one less game per week and spent the time with our children, grandchildren or spouses doing something beneficial to ourselves.
We all could afford that, couldn’t we? After all, we could always set up the recorder.
– Vern Turner is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. He lives in Marble Falls, TX, where he writes a regular column for the River Cities Daily Tribune. He is the author of three books – A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools, The Voters Guide to National Salvation and Killing the Dream: America’s Flirtation With Third World Status – all available through Amazon.com.