Player-owner deadlock shatters fans' illusions

When professional athletes get into contract squabbles with management, the attitude of the general public is highly predictable: "Look at those spoiled, greedy players -- already making millions of dollars just for hitting or throwing a ball, and they have the nerve to ask for more."

It's an understandable reaction, but it really misses the point. So with major league baseball players on strike now for the rest of the exhibition season -- and threatening to walk out again in May -- perhaps it's time to put the whole situation in perspective.

Of course it's ridiculous that the spectacle of men playing children's games is able to generate all those millions in gate receipts and television revenue. But that's a whole different question -- one that would provide an interesting subject for a comprehensive sociological study.

Meanwhile, the money is indeed available -- and given this fact, why shouldn't the people putting on the show be entitled to the lion's share of it? Nobody has ever yet bought a ticket to watch Charlie Finley or Buzzie Bavasi sit behind his desk.

This principle is so logical that it is accepted without question in all other segments of the entertainment industry -- where the incomes of many stars make even the most astronomical-sounding sports salaries look like coolie wages by comparison. Hardly anyone bats an eye, for instance, when a Robert Redford or Paul Newman gets $1 million or more for a couple of weeks of filming, or when Liza Minneli or Sammy Davis Jr. pulls down $100,000 for a few nightclub shows.

The same thing is true, ironically enough, in many sports. People actually seem to enjoy reading about the huge sums earned by Bjorn Borg, Tom Watson, and their fellow tennis and golf stars. They get a kick out of hearing that Muhammad Ali has signed to fight so-and-so for $8 million or $10 million -- with most of the money going to the boxers. And they're delighted that female athletes have battled successfully against decades of exploitation, creating an escalation of incomes in women's golf and tennis far greater percentagewise than those in any other sport.

Why, then, do they resent so strongly the salaries earned by athletes in professional team sports -- and particularly baseball? This looks like another subject for the sociologists, but we can make a guess or two.

The main reason, it seems to me, is that all the emphasis on money and union-management problems is destroying a cherished illusion. Perhaps deep down most fans acknowledge that pro sports are first and foremost a business, and that the athletes are by and large ordinary people, but they prefer to see in their heroes the idealism, loyalty, and team spirit that are so often missing in other aspects of life. This kind of mental gymnastics is becoming harder and harder to pull off, however, and I think the public resents the fact that its house of cards is being shattered.

Another key point is that those other stratospheric sports/entertainment incomes consist either of highly unpredictable and uncertain prize money earnings or individually negotiated lump sum payments for a particular movie, boxing match, or whatever. The average working person can't really relate to this, so he or she just more or less accepts it. But in the case of ballplayers , we're talking about salaries, working conditions, fringe benefits, etc. -- all the same things an ordinary person is concerned with. And somehow that worker just can't accept the idea that a professional athlete, with all his advantages, still isn't satisfied.

The fact that ballplayers get all that big money in the form of a salary -- often guaranteed for several years -- does raise one very legitimate question: Can they possibly maintain the same level of desire, hustle, and intensity that they would if they knew they had to produce to remain in such an income bracket? Maybe yes, maybe no, but the public perception is that they can't -- and as we've noted, illusion is the name of the whole game.

It does seem that these team-sport athletes have the best of both worlds (i.e., the same high income as in other sports and entertainment fields, but none of the same risks). In the final analysis, though, they can only get what the traffic will bear, and it still looks as though it may be while before any of the owners gets down to his last Big Mac or stick of chewing gum.

Actually, of course, the current player-owner disagreement is not over specific salaries (these are negotiated individually) but is concerned with negotiations for a new basic agreement covering all players and teams. The key issue comes down to money in the long run, though, because it revolves around the question of compensation for teams losing free agents. It's a bit complicated, but in essense the owners want a team signing a top-grade free agent to be required to give up a major league player in return, while the players see this as a dilution of the whole concept of free agency -- and a serious reduction to their bargaining power.

The old contract, which provided for only a draft choice as compensation, expired Dec. 31, and the two sides have been negotiating with little success ever since. The players had warned all along that a strike was possible if agreement wasn't reached by the start of the season, and on Tuesday night they carried out that threat. They announced they would boycott the remaining spring training exhibition games, go ahead with the regular season commencing April 9, but strike again if no agreement is reached by May 22.

A federal mediator has expressed hope that something can be worked out, but unless one or both sides make some major concessions, it could be a long summer.

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