Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Some straight talk on pro athletes and strikes

It's' time for some straight talk on professional athletes who either go on strike or dig in at contract time, thus forcing their leagues to lock them out.

First, I've been in a union my entire professional life. I was even president of one back in the eighties. I certainly recognize the need for them, and will defend their existence to anyone who tries to claim their obsolescence.

But this doesn't mean everything unions do is right and holy. Sometimes, they pick the wrong hill to die on. Job actions involving professional athletes? The worst, most wrong hill possible.

Nobody says it's easy negotiating contracts. But it should be easier when there's a pile of money lying in the middle of the table that could probably finance a third world country for a decade. When the squabbles involve divvying up that much money, the only thing standing in the way is greed. On both sides.

It's certainly hard to hold either side blameless in the NHL labor dispute. Owners seem to want to put the entire onus on players to rescue them from their bad decisions, and, of course, that isn't fair. But players have to understand, too, that they stand to make, in their short careers, more money than most of the fans who pay their salaries will make in a lifetime. They have to negotiate with that in mind ... that sacrificing a few bucks when the money they make in comparison to everyone else on the planet is obscenely out of balance would certainly be a noble thing to do.

Nobody suggests that a player turn down a contract worth gajillions if an owner wants to pay it (though it might have been a good idea in Carl Crawford's case). But if an owner doesn't want to pay it ... when an owner (or group of owners) sees that, even within the context of the Monopoly money being thrown around, the entire thing is getting out of control ... then you know what? It's time to make the best deal you can and go back to playing hockey. That's what the rest of us -- the ones who will probably have to work until they die on the job to be able to afford living -- have to do. And that goes for jobs covered by unions as well as those who aren't.

Those who support the union in this case always say "you're making us pay because you cannot control yourselves." Maybe. But if I make two or three million dollars over the course of a five-year career, shouldn't that go a long way toward setting me up for life? Is it an owner's fault if you blow through that money because of your lack of discipline and planning? When I hear an athlete say "I'm talking about feeding my family" when he's ALREADY making about six million a year I want to scream.

Does this person have any clue?

Do these players have any clue? All any of them have to do is turn on the TV and listen to story after story about teachers who heroically threw themselves in front of bullets to protect their pupils in Newtown last week. They didn't make one tenth of what Zdeno Chara makes in a month. Don't these players -- and the owners too -- look foolish? Do they have any relevance at all?

One of these times -- and it may just be this time -- the fans who feel betrayed by athletes and owners fighting over incomprehensible amounts of money aren't going to come flocking back. How many times must our intelligence by insulted by the likes of Donald Fehr? He may be a brilliant negotiator, but it's questionable, at this point, whether his hard line will end up being helpful. Sometimes you overplay your hand.

Most fans understand that the Bruins aren't as important as what goes on in the real world. We know they're a diverson ... a way to escape the challenges of our own lives in hopes of seeing something truly memorable every time we watch TV (and we pay for THAT, too). That's all we ask. It's not much. And most of the time, we even accept -- albeit grudgingly sometimes -- that the special skills these players possess make them deserving of the money they get ...

... Until they start wanting more ... until they become party to job actions that put what they make versus what they do under a harsher microscope. And until their protracted absence gives us the opportunity to examine their contributions to society against those who do far more for its advancement -- and make far less money -- than they do.

They may be right in principal. But being right never got anyone anywhere. Being reasonable is better. And making a deal and going back to playing hockey is even better.

I'd suggest that they NHL Players Association do that. In light of today's economic climate, and the enormous tragedies that have befallen this country, they look like fools every day they're still squabbling.

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