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Can Kobe Bryant Run A Union And Save The NBA?

Oct. 16 (Bloomberg View) — Kobe Bryant for president.

That’s the call coming from various corners of basketball media, who think the Los Angeles Lakers star should be the next head of the National Basketball Players’ Association after a compelling post-practice interview with the Los Angeles Times in which he opined that players should fight owners for their “fair market value.” With the NBA just inking a nine-year, $24 billion contract extension with TNT and ESPN, speculation abounds as to whether the lucrative television rights will spur yet another lockout after the 2016-17 season, when both sides can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement.

While some more optimistic sportswriters perhaps naively hope a work stoppage can be avoided, the general consensus is that 2017 will see another round of contentious negotiations. Admittedly, the prospect of Bryant leading the union during those talks alongside newly elected NBPA executive director Michele Roberts is intriguing. He’s always been seen as more of a thinking man than your average athlete, and his LA Times interview shows a strong grasp of the issues confronting a union that was strong-armed into losing power and revenue share in the last round of CBA talks.

Bryant addressed the perception that players are overpaid, noting that fans tend to overlook just how much money the owners take in. The latest CBA, ratified in 2011, reduced the players’ share of basketball-related revenue from 57 percent to 50 percent. The new television deal will raise the league’s annual revenue by up to a billion dollars, meaning that 7-percent difference will end up costing the players about $70 million collectively.

“It’s very easy to look at the elite players around the league and talk about the amount of money they get paid,” Bryant said. “But we don’t look at what the owners get paid, or how much revenue they generate off the backs of these players.

“Now you have a TV deal that comes out and you look at it almost being up a billion dollars from the previous one,” he continued. “It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in this next labor agreement … I’m sure they’ll try to lock us out again, and harden the cap even more.”

The increase in television revenue would likely raise the league’s “soft” salary cap — which allows teams to pay a luxury tax for crossing the payroll threshold — and maximum contracts would go up accordingly. But the owners have been pushing for years for a hard cap, which would effectively limit player compensation across the board while eliminating the advantage the soft cap gives wealthier teams that can afford to pay the luxury penalty.

In November 2013, Bryant signed a two-year, $48.5 million guaranteed extension with the Lakers, drawing the ire of fans who wanted their star to take a significant pay cut to give the team more flexibility in building a roster around him. Fans are much more willing to cast blame for their team’s losing on the face of their franchise earning his market value — or, more accurately, as close to market value as the CBA allows — rather than the billionaire owners who collectively decided to limit their payrolls. (We see this more broadly in a society that has simply accepted astronomical executive compensation at the expense of growing income inequality and relatively stagnant wages.)

But let’s not forget that the Lakers were valued at more than $1.3 billion in January — and that’s before the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer, which is sure to raise team values throughout the league. According to Grantland’s Zach Lowe, the Lakers made $100 million in profit last year despite paying a league-high $49 million toward revenue-sharing and posting their worst season on the court in recent memory.

Let’s also stop comparing Bryant to other franchise players whose willingness to take a pay cut adds to the perception of his selfishness. Sure, Tim Duncan took a 54 percent cut in 2012, and has yet another ring to show for it. And the Miami Heat’s now-dissolved Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh each left $15 million on the table in 2010 in order to play together, winning two titles as a result.

But James reversed course this past off-season, signing a two-year, max contract to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers that allows him to renegotiate once the new television deal kicks in and take advantage of the increase in the salary limit. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports that in light of the deal, James could be the face of the union’s push to eliminate max contracts altogether and allow superstars to earn their proper worth. The owners paint the various salary limitations as a way to further competitive balance, but the truth is that NBA parity is a myth, “a Trojan horse to soften the image of the league as it continues to chop into player salary,” as SB Nation‘s Tom Ziller put it.

Since max contracts were enacted in 1999 in response to Michael Jordan’s $33.1 million deal the previous year — which was at the time higher than both the salary cap and the average team payroll, and remains the highest single-season NBA salary — just six of the 30 teams have been crowned NBA champions. At least one of three usual suspects — the Spurs, Heat and, yes, Lakers — has appeared in every single NBA Final since 1999.

Doing away with max contracts in the NBA would prevent the same teams from stacking talent to maintain their dynasties. According to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the league would consider getting rid of max contracts if the players relinquished their right to guaranteed contracts. Cuban calls that a “trade-off”; I call it a workaround for the owners to find another way to exploit their players for even more profit. (Just ask any NFL player who suffered a career-ending injury how he feels about non-guaranteed money.)

The 36-year-old Bryant would be the perfect person to advocate for fairer compensation for individual superstars relative to the revenue they’re generating, but there are significant obstacles. For one, Bryant has never made it a priority to be liked throughout the league, while current NBPA president Chris Paul of the Clippers commands respect and popularity among his fellow players.

There is also the fact that the union is starkly divided between superstars such as Bryant and the NBA’s journeymen, and the owners have done a great job of selling the idea of max contracts as necessary to properly compensate those players whose names don’t top jersey sales and whose faces aren’t plastered on billboards around town. Uniting the NBPA is paramount to any chance the players as a whole might have in going up against the owners in three years.

The NBA has been incredibly successful in using old-school corporate tactics, getting its workers to quarrel among themselves and shaping a public narrative to deflect attention from the league’s enormous cash flow. In the last round of CBA negotiations, the owners effectively played poor in arguing for a 50-50 split of basketball-related income, but that’s a wildly creative interpretation of the facts. Nine teams posted losses last season, but except for the foolish Brooklyn Nets, no team lost more than $13 million. There’s plenty of money in the $4 billion league, and it’s just going to increase once the new television deal kicks in. (Roberts, for her part, is dogged on this, telling blogger Chris Sheridan that the players “want to be respected for the fact that they are what makes this game successful, and one of the ways to show that is to allow for fair compensation.” She also curtly dispelled any notion that the owners were somehow cash-poor in the last round of negotiations, stating bluntly, “teams weren’t losing money.”)

So how can the NBA prove that its supposed commitment to competitive balance isn’t just lip service meant to funnel more money to the owners? Ziller of SB Nation doesn’t think uncapping salaries is realistic, so he proposes a novel, somewhat tongue-in-cheek idea: Cap team profits. If the league believes that stealing from the rich to give to the poor has worked well with the players, why not extend the practice to its franchises? As Ziller notes, the Bryants and Jameses of the league are making much less than they should be, the argument goes, because you need to fill out rosters with role players who don’t command as much pay. Similarly, the Lakers and other wealthy teams need low-revenue teams to round out the league. Big-name owners should have to make the same sacrifices as big-name stars for the supposed good of the league. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in a salary cap on front-office executives, too.

It’s an absurdist argument for an absurdist system existing in an absurdist corporate climate that places the burden of an industry’s economic health on the labor force while attributing a disproportionate amount of its success to its executive class. But sports owners are only as valuable as their checkbooks, and general managers are only as valuable as the players they put on their court. Maybe Kobe Bryant is the guy who can help make sense of it all.

Photo: TheDailySportsHerald via Flickr

Goodell Investigation Is All Among Friends

Sept. 12 (Bloomberg View) — Ignorance is not a suitable defense.

That was what National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell told coach Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints when he punished them for so-called Bountygate two years ago, and it could come back to haunt him after the latest revelation by the Associated Press that the league had received the videotape of Ray Rice striking his fiancée back in April.

The NFL contends that it didn’t view the tape until it was leaked by TMZ on Monday, and has launched an “independent investigation” into the league’s handling of the evidence, led by former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller. “Independence” is in the eye of the beholder, though: While Mueller has an impressive résumé, he works for the law firm that negotiated the NFL’s multi-billion-dollar television deal with DirecTV. In addition, the inquiry will be overseen by New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney — two of the most respected and publicly visible owners in football, but both have been supporters of Goodell’s tenure, and yesterday Mara dismissed the idea that “the commissioner‘s job is now in jeopardy.”

It’s pretty hard to see this as little more than public-relations scrambling, an attempt to make it look like the NFL is doing everything it can to get to the root of its own incompetence. If anything, the investigation just buys the league some time and space, in the hopes that whenever it concludes the public will have moved on.

It’s also a sign that the owners are sticking by their commissioner despite increasing calls for his resignation. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft maintains that Goodell had “no knowledge” of the video, while Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross told Bloomberg’s Betty Liu, “Roger is not a liar.” For now, the men to whom Goodell answers have faith in their guy.

And why wouldn’t they? He’s made them a lot of money since taking the reins eight years ago. The NFL brought in $9 billion last year, and Goodell has pledged to up that number to $25 billion by 2027. The owners have shown their appreciation to the tune of more than $44 million, Goodell’s salary in 2012.

But even if Goodell were to go, it’s hard to believe that would result in any lasting change, given just how much power these 32 owners and their sport wield. There’s no reason to think this latest scandal will do anything to prevent the football machine from continuing to churn out the dollars: One major advertising partner, Verizon, has already stated its continued support for Goodell.

So you’ll excuse me if I don’t have the highest hopes for this investigation? What I do hope, however, is that it sheds light on the most utterly baffling part of this whole affair: Why would the NFL go through all this trouble just to protect Ray Rice? Goodell hasn’t been shy about throwing the book at players — just ask James Harrison –what made this a special case?

Perhaps this was just “protecting the Shield” gone awry, a result of the kind of hubris that comes from the notoriously image-conscious league seeing its past indiscretions go largely unchecked. When the Rice incident happened back in February, the NFL was still trying to settle its concussion lawsuit while dealing with the Richie Incognito bullying case. In fact, investigator Ted Wells’s report on the Miami Dolphins’ locker room was published the day before Rice’s arrest. Maybe the league felt the need to deflect yet another story that would cause fans to question the ability of players to compartmentalize an inherently violent game and the kind of dangerous masculinity in inspires. (Mission unaccomplished: CBS’ James Brown addressed exactly this in a powerful statement during last night’s Thursday Night Football coverage.)

I can’t quite figure out why the league would think a two-game suspension to Rice would accomplish this, but every step it has taken since has clearly been in the interest of controlling the narrative. It’s not a stretch to think that everything, from initial reaction to the suspension to the apparent cover-up, has been about steering the conversation away from the NFL’s larger, existential issues.

Or maybe Goodell’s judgment was simply clouded by his power, derived from the league’s seemingly endless stream of cash and unflinching popularity. It’s an overwrought metaphor, but this entire affair seems so utterly Nixonian. You can almost picture Goodell saying, “When the commissioner does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

Whatever the reason, let’s hope this investigation can at least help us answer the question of just what the league was thinking. Because even in the unlikely event that Goodell loses his job, the idea that nothing’s above the Shield would remain in office.

AFP Photo

Sports Is No Place for Anti-Semitic Salutes

French soccer player Nicolas Anelka spurred controversy Saturday after flashing what supporters have called an innocuous gesture in celebration of his first goal with West Bromwich Albion. The gesture — called a “quenelle” and sometimes described as a reverse Nazi salute, with one arm extended downward and the other hand touching its shoulder — has once again raised accusations of anti-Semitism in a sport that has a long and complicated history with Jews.

At the very least, Anelka should have know better, given recent, high-profile backlash against anti-Semitism in soccer. In March, Greek footballer Giorgos Katidis was banned for life from the national team after giving a Nazi salute, despite his protests that he was unaware of the gesture’s meaning. In November 2012, some West Ham United fans were arrested and banned by the club for participating in crowdwide taunting of Tottenham, a team with strong associations to the Jewish community. The horrific showing involved a coordinated Nazi salute, chanting, and hissing to mimic the sound of gas chambers, and came just days after a Spurs fan had been stabbed in Rome in a suspected hate crime. West Ham fans denied that their actions were racially motivated, insisting that the gestures and chants were just part of their usual rally cry, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

Anelka is taking the same approach, claiming his use of the quenelle was misunderstood. After making the gesture, he defended himself on Twitter, insisting that the quenelle was simply a tribute to a friend, and even posting a photo of what he said was President Barack Obama making the same gesture. Both claims are dubious: Obama was, in fact, mimicking the gesture from the Jay Z classic “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” alongside the rapper himself; and the friend Anelka was honoring has an anti-Semitic streak that is anything but simple.

You see, the quenelle is the invention and trademark of Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, a French comedian and anti-Semitic activist whose humor and politics tend to come at the expense of Holocaust victims. According to the BBC, the gesture is a variation on the bras d’honneur, which means “up yours,” and can be traced back to the comedian’s performances as well as his 2009 campaign for a seat in the European Parliament as the head of an anti-Zionist party. The BBC notes that Dieudonné “once said he would like to put a quenelle — a rugby-ball-shaped serving of fish or meat paste — up the backside of Zionists.” The comedian has been repeatedly fined and convicted for hate speech, and the French Interior Ministry is exploring its legal options in banning Dieudonné from the public sphere.

The controversy has extended to U.S. shores, with San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker drawing criticism for making the quenelle alongside the comedian in a recently circulated photo. The Belgium-born NBA star and French citizen apologized today for the three-year-old photo, saying he was unaware of the offensive connotation of the gesture and hoping that this can serve as a teachable moment for those who dismiss it as a harmless part of French culture.

Anelka’s supporters, including Dieudonné himself, euphemistically maintain that the gesture isn’t anti-Semitic, it’s anti-establishment. Coming from someone who’s paranoid that the establishment is run by Jews, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and the distinction isn’t exactly reassuring. Dieudonné’s rise in the public eye has mirrored a rise in anti- Semitic violence in France, a country with half a million Jewish residents, the third-largest Jewish population behind the U.S. and Israel. A 2007 profile of Dieudonné in The New Yorker traces many of these attacks to the comedian’s status as a folk hero among the North African immigrants living in ghettos outside of Paris, who have found themselves at the heart of burgeoning xenophobia, with white French citizens viewing demographic shifts as a threat to their national identity. Dieudonné has found a following among the far-left immigrants and youths who far too easily fall into the ancient trap of scapegoating the Jewish population for broad, societal issues, from the ills of capitalism to racism. The New Yorker’s Tom Reiss wrote about the movement:

“Dieudonné is the spokesman, the godfather, the icon of a new kind of anti-Semitism,” Alain Finkielkraut, the philosopher and memoirist of Jewish identity, told me. “It is an explicitly anti-racist anti-Semitism, which inverts traditional anti-Semitism by asserting that the Nazis today are in fact the Jews. The idiom of anti-Semitism is no longer racism; it is now anti-racism. Dieudonné’s followers say that they don’t hate Jews, they hate Jewish racism. They say that Israel is like Nazism, like apartheid.”

The French divide along color lines is especially stark in soccer. In 2011, reports that the national team had met to discuss instituting racial quotas drew ire, a far cry from the unity inspired by the 1998 World Cup champion team that boasted as its hallmark “Black, Blanc, Beur” — black, white, Arab. That success was short-lived, with far-right politicians questioning the very Frenchness of players of African descent, highlighted by the very public calling-out by National Front leader Jean- Marie Le Pen of captain Zinedine Zidane, whose parents emigrated from Algeria under French rule. A recent report by the American Center for Democracy that uses soccer as a measure for immigrant integration in Europe notes the social and cultural disintegration that has occurred in France as a result of political dysfunction and economic failure is highlighted in soccer’s inability to reconcile its racial issues.

And so we return to sports. By flashing the gesture, Anelka — himself the child of Caribbean immigrants — emboldened legions of fans caught in the midst of convoluted and often contradictory racial tension to follow the lead of an opportunistic comedian and his anti-Semitic message. We don’t know if Anelka himself is anti-Semitic, and it doesn’t really matter: What does matter is how the gesture can be interpreted to further an agenda meant to divide, not unite. It would serve him best to simply stay out of these political issues that are far more complicated than he probably realizes. At least someone in the footballer’s camp has advised him as such: West Brom confirmed today that Anelka would refrain from using the quenelle going forward. It seems it’s much easier to dismiss an innocent gesture when you’re unaware of its harmful implications.

Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson

Photo: Dan Brown via Flickr

The Tax Hypocrisy Of The ‘Worldwide Leader In Sports’

It turns out professional teams and leagues aren’t the only billion-dollar sports entities getting big breaks on their tax bills.

The New York Times reports that ESPN, the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports” whose headquarters are located in Bristol, CT, has received nearly $260 million in state tax breaks and credits over the past decade. According to the Times, the incentives include a $25 million contribution toward the construction of the Digital Center 2, a 193,000-square-foot building set to open in the spring. The boon is the result of a sophisticated lobbying scheme: ESPN has reportedly spent $1.2 million on lobbying expenses since 2007 and counts Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy and Bristol mayor Ken Cockayne among its main supporters.

Malloy and Cockayne contend that the economic growth the company generates is integral to Connecticut; they point to the devastating impact ESPN’s departure would have on the local economy. To be sure, ESPN’s benefit to Bristol is undeniable: It is the 25th-largest employer in the state and by far the largest employer in the city. Since 2000, ESPN has spent $1 billion on construction in Bristol, adding more than 2,700 jobs in a state whose workforce has consistently shrunk in the past decade.

The question is whether such tax incentives are necessary to keep ESPN in Bristol. Politicians repeatedly state that these kinds of breaks deter companies from fleeing to other states, but ESPN has never actually threatened to leave Connecticut. Furthermore, the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy concluded that tax credits don’t give a state any influence over businesses’ behavior when it comes to hiring and investing. Such incentives might actually be a detriment to a local economy by displacing smaller businesses, and in order to pay for incentives, the public services that companies rely on to conduct their day-to-day operations often have to be reduced.

The most glaring aspect of the Times’ report, however, isn’t that the world’s most profitable media company receives tax breaks — it’s the hypocrisy of the entire arrangement. ESPN generates an estimated $6 billion a year on cable subscriptions alone, thanks to channel bundling that effectively charges every subscriber an average of $5.54 a month whether or not he or she watches the network. Forbes reports that fewer than 5 percent of cable households watch ESPN, yet the channel is available in 100 million homes. ESPN and cable providers thus levy a kind of tax on the majority of non-sports-watching homes in order to subsidize those of us who actually watch it.

Even worse, ESPN earns these monstrous revenues while condemning other organizations for enjoying the exact same benefits. Back in June, an ESPN.com editorial took on the National Football League’s ludicrous legal status as a tax-exempt nonprofit, noting the potential loss of revenue at the federal, state and city levels. And just two weeks ago, ESPN made waves with an in-depth Outside the Lines report on the PGA Tour’s nonprofit business model, which has resulted in nearly $200 million in federal tax exemptions over the last two decades.

The most recent piece acknowledged the group’s charitable contributions but questioned how much of it actually serves needy groups and whether those benefits outweigh the cost to taxpayers. Bristol residents should probably start to question their local politicians the next time they want to further shift the tax burden away from the Worldwide Leader.

Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson

Photo: USAG-Humphreys via Flickr