Monday, February 20, 2012

Human, All Too Human

"Are you a man?  Grow up!  Play the game!  You're a professional!"

One or all of these statements have been the response from sports pundits who other sports pundits (in a psychoanalytical circle jerk) ask about the impact of trade rumors on players' performance.  Exhibits:

1) Lamar Odom at the outset of the NBA season.  After David Stern personally vetoed the Chris Paul-Lakers-Rockets trade out of a complete conflict of interest in attempting to sell the Hornets, Odom was reportedly unhappy in L.A. because they had wanted to trade him.  He was sent to the Mavericks for a pick in what was at the time considered one of the most lopsided deals in recent memory.  (Other reports were that the new Lakers coach had personal problems with Odom and the Lakers office was unhappy with the publicity his marriage to a Kardashian was causing.)

2) Dwight Howard asking for a trade to a new team every week.  (At this point I think the Colorado Rockies, San Francisco 49ers, Boston Bruins, and Team Livestrong are on the wish list).  Is this affecting his chemistry with his teammates?  Are they trying?  Do they feel like he's thrown them under the bus?

3)  Joakim Noah in Chicago is a fixture of any trade rumors for Chicago (whether for Dwight Howard or anyone else).  Noah's numbers were down at the beginning of the season and so this question came up for him as well (Noah's response was that he feels the burden of expectation now that he's got a bigger contract).

4) Pau Gasol.  Craig mentioned one particular rumor in an earlier column.  This is by no means the only trade rumor involving Gasol.  Gasol was part of the Stern nixed Paul trade at the outset of the season.  Since then he and Bynum have been fixtures of Howard trade rumors.  For all I know Gasol for Deron Williams rumors are also bouncing around out there (if not feel free to credit me for starting them).  Regardless, today on Mike and Mike in the Morning we had Kobe quoted as ripping his front office saying that he liked playing with Pau but if they are going to trade him just "!@%!@ do it already".  This led to the speculation of whether Pau's play this year has been impacted by the constant trade rumors.

In all of these examples, someone will look at the players in question, who may or may not be impacted by the uncertainty surrounding their career, and tell them to STFU, to man up, to grow a pair, to take off that skirt, to grow up, to act like an adult, and they will iterate and reiterate that these grown men are professionals and they are paid to play a game.  Maybe playing in Charlotte isn't as exciting as playing in L.A., but if that upsets you then you can cry yourself to sleep on top of the $10 million you are making.

First of all:  Yes, true, they are adults, and they are professionals.  They receive substantial compensation (some more than others) to engage in an activity children, college students, and people that work less than 80 hours a week engage in for fun and exercise.  They aren't performing brain surgery.  They aren't being asked to fix our economy or teach our nation's children how to read (though some do).

But they aren't robots, either.  They are still human beings, and a lot of that gets lost in the make-up of sports labor.  Compensation aside, when players sign a contract with a team their options become significantly limited.  If a normal person is unhappy in their job, they can quit.  If a better offer comes along, they can take it.  If they want to relocate, they have the option.  Signed players do not have those options, and in every sport the contract structure favors the owners.  Some sports more than others.

Let's say you're a young quarterback drafted onto a 2-14 team.  Your team is giving up 4 sacks a game and you suffer your first concussion as a rookie, and then your team goes out and trades its draft picks for an aging receiver, signs a linebacker in free agency, and just tells you to get rid of the ball quicker rather than beef up your o-line.  Well guess what, you're stuck.  You can't leave, because that team has the exclusive right to your services for the next 4 years.  That's not calendar years, that's years of play.  You can't even quit, sit on your couch for 4 years, and come back, because the contract tolls until you come back.  You could spend your best years languishing on a bad team under a severe risk of injury.  For every Peyton Manning there are half a dozen David Carrs.

Now let's talk about Peyton Manning.  Those overpaid athletes, in football at least, almost never see every dime of their big contracts.  Football contracts by and large are backloaded and aren't guaranteed.  Owners can freely cut a player whose price tag got too big, despite having freely negotiated those terms.  I wouldn't be surprised if most owners gladly bloat a contracts numbers to induce a signing knowing they will never pay the back end of it.  Peyton Manning specifically is owed $28 million this coming season.  He won a Super Bowl for the Colts, and had them in the playoffs in the 2010-2011 season.  He gets injured this past year and the Colts drop to 2-14 without him.  But that's okay, because now they get to draft Andrew Luck, who ESPN can't stop fellating or declaring to be the best talent of a generation.  Oh, and by the way, they will be able to draft him under the new CBA's brand new rules regarding rookie salaries (non-negotiable scheduled payments based on draft order like the NBA has).  So they get possibly the next Peyton Manning for less money than the Panthers are paying Cam Newton.  Jim Irsay has been tripping over himself trying to find more social media outlets with which to make Peyton Manning feel unwelcome.  Peyton Manning, the guy who not only made the Colts relevant, but has hospitals named after him in Indianapolis, and has declared repeatedly he wants to retire as a Colt.  Irsay's response:  Fine, but first we need to renegotiate that $28 million I freely negotiated earlier for no other reason than I just don't feel like paying it.

Free agency has helped balance the power some, but the majority of the cards are still in the hands of owners.  The NBA almost lost a season after its best season in a decade due to owners like Dan Gilbert hating the fact that they can't dictate to players not only how much they get paid but where they will play and for how long.  No wonder then that the players' union caused a shit storm when their spokesperson talked about NBA owners having a "plantation mentality".  Set aside the racial implications (which are important), it is a fact that when owners start talking trades, they treat these human beings the same way schoolyard children treat toys, lunch box treats, or playing cards.  They are assets to be traded, not people with feelings, desires, and ambitions; nevermind home mortgages, friends, and children in a specific school district within their current city.

No other profession can treat workers this way.  Imagine, for a moment, that you are an engineer.  You went to college specifically to study engineering for the purpose of entering the field of alternative energy development.  You work for a company that engineers solar panels.  After five years, your company comes in one day and tells you they are shipping you off to work for Shell's oil fields in Qatar, so pack your bags, because Shell is sending them two mid-level managers.  Or maybe you're a PR rep for a Democratic senator and suddenly he tells you that there are some promising interns coming up the ranks of the College Republicans at Harvard that they've been promised in exchange for shipping you off to Washington state to help a Republican governor get re-elected.  Oh, and you can't quit unless you never want to work in politics/engineering again.

Yes, these players are quite often very well compensated.  But let's also recognize that their compensation is due to the fact that the sports themselves make massive amounts of money.  Players aren't paid millions in compensation for giving up their freedom of contract, they are paid millions because sports make billions.

Does all of this mean that we need to cry a river for Peyton Manning or Pau Gasol?  No.  I'm not reaching for the Kleenex, nor do I expect you to be.  But it bears repeating that, however much money players make, they are human too.

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