The Miller’s Tale


The postmortems on the NBA labor dispute have been arriving fast and furious since last week’s settlement, and one of the most surprising assessments comes from Marvin Miller, the former head of the baseball union, who led a successful strike against team owners in 1981. “The players’ association has agreed to provisions that will provide a lower salary scale than if there were no union at all,” Miller tells Jockbeat. Although plenty of people have questioned Players Association executive director Billy Hunter’s leadership in the last week, it’s curious to have a legendary sports labor chief suggest that NBA players might be better off without a union. Miller doesn’t necessarily recommend that NBA players decertify their union in order to nullify the new contract, but, he says, “It has to be considered when a union has gone this far in limiting [its members’] salaries.”

Economic analyst Andrew Zimbalist, who worked as a paid adviser to the union during the lockout, disagrees, pointing out that for much of the negotiating process, the league had refused to devote more than 48 percent of revenues to player salaries. During the seven-year span of the current deal, the portion of revenues that would be allowed to go toward player salaries could rise to as much as 57 percent. “If you didn’t have Billy [Hunter] running the show, the players would have gotten less,” says Zimbalist.

“It sounded to me like he didn’t know what he was doing,” counters Miller, in reference to Hunter’s decision to call a vote of confidence last Monday amid visible signs that the players’ unified front was crumbling. “The notion that you could bring people in and after an hour or two get an informed vote is nonsense.”

Zimbalist applauds Hunter’s efforts to keep players unified, a task he describes as “Herculean.” But he calls the agreement a victory for owners. Teams, he says, are going to become “enormously profitable” over the life of this deal.

Miller’s prophecy is a bit more extreme. With salary restraints that free owners from that pesky obligation to consider a star player’s market value when deciding what to pay them, Miller envisions a future when a team owner tells the next Michael Jordan, “I’d like to pay you what you’re worth, but your union won’t let me.”

Management taking cover behind a union contract? Implausible? Or just another of the incongruities that seemed to characterize “Lockout ’98-’99”? It was the labor battle that had millionaires fighting for their “survival” and billionaire capitalists calling for socialist-style curbs on the free market. Former union skeptics like Patrick Ewing and NBPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler— who were both active in the 1995 drive to decertify the players’ association— joined the union’s front lines. And management, not labor, exerted its strength through unity (and a little financial cooperation from NBC and Turner Sports), while NBA journeymen struggled to remember why they should care about salary caps that they would probably never bump up against. In a fitting resolution to a conflict rife with absurdities, NBA players have regained their status as the highest-paid group of athletes in the U.S. by agreeing to the most stringent restrictions on earnings that professional sports has ever seen. Go figure.

Race is the Place

With everyone but Trent Lott lionizing John Thompson, it’s as if the man’s work is done, case solved, racial equality in athletics firmly established, exit hero.

Except, of course, the work is not done. It’s apparently taboo, for example, to raise the issue of race when analyzing the NBA lockout, and Proposition 48 remains a questionable burden in the life of young athletes.

Racism, Temple coach John Chaney tells Jockbeat, is “the most intractable disease there is. My mom used to say that when there’s dirt on top of the rug, there’s a lot more underneath.”

“We never want to talk about it,” agrees Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. But Thompson did. “He constantly put the issue out there in ways that a lot of people didn’t want to hear about, and felt very uncomfortable about, but everyone needed to hear,” says Lapchick.

“That’s one of the reasons George Raveling, Nolan Richardson, John Thompson, and I got a little closer,” Chaney explains. “Because of the issues. We felt like we had a chance to do something about it.”

That’s also why Chaney hit the roof when learning of Thompson’s resignation, “I wanted to have him committed,” Chaney says. When he spoke to his friend, “I didn’t let him get a word in. I told him Nolan’s pissed off at you. George is pissed off at you.” Chaney also spoke to Father Leo O’Donovan, Georgetown’s president, and pleaded with him to make Thompson stay. “I asked him to look in the Bible and find a passage that’ll justify putting him under house arrest.

“I just love the man so much,” he says.”That’s the only reason I forgive him.”

contributors: Sarah Smith, Joanna Cagan sports editor: Miles D. Seligman

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