Two (“Brilliant”) Thoughts from Jonathan Weiler

Jonathan Weiler — who has frequently offered thoughts in this forum — has recently offered two pieces of analysis that I think are worth reading.  The first is an article he published on college athletics with Richard Southall.  Here is how Jonathan describes this work (click on the link to read the paper:

Richard Southall and I have an article out that considers the similarities between company town employees and profit sport athletes. We like the company town metaphor because the athletes are not, in fact, in bondage, as “plantation” and “slavery” analogies have suggested. Athletes can, after all, leave the work arrangement whenever they like. But in a lot of ways, their relationship to their universities does evoke the relationship of company town workers to the towns that employed them. Some of the elements of that relationship we look at include the paternalism that suffuses the Collegiate Model of Athletics, promoting intensive surveillance of players’ conduct, both in the work context itself and during their ‘free time;’ the nature of their in-kind compensation (grant in aid), akin to scrip that one could only redeem at the company store; limited athlete representation in college sport governance, usually through student-athlete advisory committees, which bear an interesting resemblance to company unions; and moral and character-based justifications for the Collegiate Model, which resemble frequent claims by company town owners that they were fulfilling their “Christian” duty to uplift the charges who worked for them by subjecting them to rigorous discipline, strict rules and so forth.

We’re trying to move the conversation forward – to provide a framework for understanding the nature of the exploitation of college athletes (and yes, we know that not everyone agrees they’re exploited).

Jonathan’s second thought is on the notion that Melo will sign with the Heat.

The world will come to an end if ‘Melo signs with the Heat

…OK, not quite.

There was already a lot of silly chatter about “built vs. bought.” Now, amidst reports that Carmelo Anthony might opt out of the final year of his contract with the Knicks in two weeks, rumors are flying that he may join the Big Three in Miami to form a BIG FOUR.

Naturally, this is bringing much handwringing about what a disaster that would be for the NBA.

For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to leave aside questions of ‘Melo’s value. I’ve said enough about that and it’s not really relevant to the matter at hand, which is all about perception, competitive balance and player control. As a very quick aside, ‘Melo’s single biggest weakness as a player is that he takes too many low-percentage shots and he might well do less of that in Miami. For another day.

Since Greenie was carrying the torch this morning for the doom-and-gloom crowd, let’s focus on some of his concerns (Golic was, it should be noted, appropriately contemptuous of everyone of Greenie’s arguments).

1) it will create a super team which will undermine the league’s competitive balance, which is bad for the sport.

Greenberg covered the Bulls during their first three-peat in the 1990s. He is well aware that the Bulls won six titles in eight seasons, the only two misses between 1991 and 1998 being when MJ sat all (1994) of one season and most (1995) of the next. I think it’s fair to say that the league did not suffer as an entertainment entity during that period of MJ’s ascendancy.

Indeed, the NBA has been characterized by dominance throughout almost the entirety of its existence. One interesting and notable exception was the 1970s, coming as it did at the end of the Celtics’ Russell-led dynasty. Between 1970 and 1979, only two teams won multiple championships, the Celtics (1974 and 1976) and the Knicks (1970 and 1973). The championship wealth was shared among teams like Golden State, Milwaukee, Portland and Seattle, hardly mega-markets.

We all know how well that turned out for the NBA – the 1970s were a disaster for the league and ended with NBA finals games being shown on tape delay.

The 1980s witnessed the emergence of a new dynasty – the Lakers – who won five championships between 1980 and 1988. In fact, only four teams won titles during the decade – the Lakers, Celtics (3), Sixers and Detroit. By the way, the Lakers played in eight of the ten finals during that span.

To put it mildly, that was not bad for business.

2) As Golic was practically yelling at Greenie about the fact that we’ve long had star-studded teams in the NBA, including the Bulls, Greenie demurred that, at least, Jordan’s Bulls had to “work their way up the ladder,” to “earn” their success. LeBron did not do so, since he bolted the Cavs in order to wangle a shortcut to becoming a championship.

Let’s review some other superstars and how long they had to wait for their first championship:

Bill Russell (won his rookie year)

Kareem (had to wait all the way until his second season)

Magic (won his rookie season)

Larry Bird (season two)

Tim Duncan (also had to wait all the way until his second season)

As you can see, all time greats always used to have to pay their dues. But not any longer.

3) The Heat were built “artificially.”

Now, of course, we get to the crux of the matter. Greenie admitted that the whole notion of these player-created super teams “just doesn’t sit well” with him. But he hasn’t been quite able to acknowledge why that is so. It’s simple – it’s OK for management to put great players together. It’s just not OK for players to decide to do so. I wrote about this the other day.

But as Golic pointed out, these previous greats didn’t have to seek out their own superstar teammates because the team did it. Russell arrived on a team that already had, among other players, Bob Cousy. Kareem joined Oscar Robertson. Magic joined Kareem (and two years later, thanks to the idiocy of Ted Stepien, James Worthy climbed aboard). Bird entered the league at the same time that Red Auerbach swung the ridiculous trade that landed him Parish and Mchale. Duncan, of course, joined Robinson.

The road to NBA dynasties is the pairing (or tripling) of great players. And the evidence suggests that those dynasties coincide with greater levels of popularity for the league.

The *only* issue here is that the impetus is coming from the players, not management. And that’s just them being uppity – not knowing their place in the cosmos.

As it happens, the Big Three will all have to sacrifice potential salary to make this happen (as LeBron already did in 2010). That’s supposed to be anathema to the selfish, modern athlete, but it’s actually a pretty regular occurrence in the NBA (and other sports). No one needs to feel sorry for guys making as much money as LeBron, Wade, Bosh and so on are. But you don’t see any NBA owners giving back a single solitary penny when they don’t have to.

This is all just speculation right now. But the arguments against player-driven super teams are exceedingly weak, because they’re built not on any concrete, credible concerns about the future of the league. Instead, they derive from a more basic anxiety about the undermining of the social order. In that light, as Golic said to Greeny this morning, “get over it.”

– Jonathan Weiler

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