We Hate Pro Athletes, But We Need To Be On The Same Team
Here’s why hating Tiger Woods is wrong.
In early May, the Mets suspended one of their pitchers for an undisclosed violation of team rules. A few days later, it was reported that he had called in sick for a game he wasn’t pitching after spending a night out at 1OAK, the default nightclub for New York celebrities and rich people. Harvey has a bit of a history of being a bad boy, and since he hasn’t pitched well the last few seasons, Mets fans were livid at his behavior. In pro sports, there’s nothing worse than not being a team player; as all fans know and expect, players have to sacrifice?—?physically, emotionally, financially?—?for the good of the team.
As a jaded Mets fan (it’s hard to handle this team any other way) I rolled my eyes at the transgression and thought they might be best off trading Harvey in the off-season. Now that he’s no longer pitching like an All Star, his persona of hard-partying ultra-bro?—?the kind of dude who dresses like every day is a GQ photo shoot?—?is just obnoxious, a distraction from the goals of the organization. Then I realized that I was reading the latest New York Daily News story about the Harvey saga, tsk-tsking the fact that he wasn’t a model employee, while I myself was commuting to work about four hours later than I probably should have been.
Was I really in a position to judge Harvey for not showing up to the ballpark on a day he wasn’t scheduled to pitch? To be clear, I was working from home that morning, but I made that decision unilaterally; I’m lucky to have some flexibility in my job, but I definitely stretch it every now and then. And yeah, I’ve played hooky at jobs before. Plus, I always go to bat for people at work when they’re late, distracted or slacking off (for some good reason), or just generally having a bad day. What was it about Harvey that made it so different, that enabled me to get self-righteously upset about his sick day?
It’s impossible to talk about how Americans perceive and treat pro athletes without noting that race plays a major factor. It’s no coincidence that fans feel ownership over players, and African Americans primarily fill both NBA and NFL rosters?—?and do you think Tiger Woods would be suffering the same sort of humiliation after his impaired driving arrest if he wasn’t a minority?—?especially one that cheated on a blonde white woman? But Harvey is white, so we can put that mostly aside in this specific instance. There were other factors that led to headlines like “Matt Harvey needs to grow up, step up and apologize to the Mets,” as MLB reporter Ken Rosenthal wrote on Fox Sports after the suspension. The vitriol fired at Harvey would have sunk a warship, revealing a stunning lack of empathy and solidarity for the 28-year-old pitcher and?—?this is the important point?—?employee.
Though the peaceful accord between labor unions and corporations in the decades after World War II is more nostalgic myth than actual history, the irrefutable fact is that unionism, and with it a sense of worker solidarity, has fallen dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1980, 23 percent of American workers belonged to unions, while just 11 percent have representation in the workplace today. At the same time, organized athletes have enjoyed unprecedented victories, legally and then financially.
“The summer of 1981 was emblematic of this,” Daniel Gilbert, a labor historian at the University of Illinois who focuses on baseball, tells dose. “The MLBPA [the union for MLB players] successfully defended free agency by going on strike and roundly defeating team owners. That was within weeks of Reagan firing the air traffic controllers (the striking members of PATCO), in one of the key symbolic moments in the decline of the American labor movement.”
Reagan brought with him a conservative ethos of freedom and “personal responsibility” and kicked off the me-first 80s. Though his policies generally led to dead ends for workers, the Gipper’s sunny disposition and delusional notions of the rugged American individualist made his far-right ideology go mainstream. Union leaders have been vilified?—?polling has shown voters in the 80s and 90s believed they were linked to organized crime?—?and laws have weakened them further. Over half of the states now have so-called Right to Work laws, which make it possible for workers to opt out of union dues at organized workplaces.
The Republican Party has mounted a sustained attack on the social safety net, pushing the idea that people shouldn’t be obligated to support one another. The blossoming of the freelance economy has fractured the workplace even further, and so not only has it become harder to earn a living, but it’s also reinforced the sense that one must go it alone and compete against fellow workers instead of fighting on their behalf?—?many people no longer even have real coworkers. And companies like Uber are backed by Democratic operatives, as well, so it’s a bipartisan problem.
A story in the Harvard Business Review last year put some numbers on the workplace empathy problem. It cited a recent study of people in various service professions that suggested our current labor arrangement is exhausting our humanity. “People who reported workplace behaviors such as ‘taking time to listen to coworkers’ problems and worries’ and helping others who have heavy workloads’ felt less capable of connecting with their families. They felt emotionally drained and burdened by work-related demands.”
Sure, Harvey is making over $5 million to play baseball, not driving an Uber or doing odd jobs as a Taskrabbit. So he’s not exactly living paycheck to paycheck, and doesn’t really need our sympathy. Still, as it turns out, he’s spending the night at the club drinking away heartbreak until late in the night, which is something we can all relate to. But more importantly, Harvey is still an employee, and while a well-compensated one, he’s at the mercy of billionaire ball club owners.
Somehow we’ve become more likely to side with billionaires than athletes: when Quicken Loans billionaire Dan Gilbert wrote his famous Comic Sans letter ripping LeBron James for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami, millions cheered. Kevin Durant was similarly scathed last summer for jumping from Oklahoma City to Oakland, and he wasn’t a hometown hero. Durant was simply exercising a choice to play for a team that gave him a better chance to win.
Who can blame him? Fans?—?that’s who. There are 20 billionaire owners in the NBA alone, yet Durant?—?a single player looking out for himself in accordance with the rules of a signed collective-bargaining agreement?—?got the heat.
“I think an even deeper transformation [than the decline in unions] has been a shift in how fans are invited to understand and engage with baseball and other sports,” Professor Gilbert says. “More and more, we follow the business of sports as itself a critical part of the action. Spectacles like the NFL draft and, to a lesser degree, the baseball winter meetings, are front page news in the sports world. More and more, fans are put in the position of viewing sports from the perspective of management.”
That makes us ruthless, always hoping that players make less than owners are willing to pay, even though owners, again, are mostly billionaires. That’s especially true in baseball, which has no hard salary cap. This attitude is reflective of the way we view one another, in our day-to-day lives, whether we’re on hourly wages, fixed income or in the middle class.
The double standard does work both ways, to some degree. Athletes who have trouble with the law are often given second chances that normal people with criminal records or a history of legal trouble are rarely afforded; Michael Vick came back to the NFL after serving time for running a dogfighting ring, and plenty of pros are accused of domestic violence, serve a suspension and are then welcomed back to their teams.
In fact, the Mets have two players who have been accused of hitting their wives in the last two off-seasons. I was very uncomfortable with the team signing Jose Reyes last year after his suspension, but fans welcomed the old great back to the team to fill what the author Stanley Teitelbaum calls “hero hunger.”
Then again?—?as painful as it can be to acknowledge it in those circumstances?—?society is supposed to allow people back in after committing crimes (or being accused of crimes). Even the idea that someone should be banned from working after paying the price for their off-the-field actions smacks of the inherently conservative law-and-order worldview that gave rise to private prisons and purging freed felons from the voter rolls.
It’s a lot to extrapolate from a short suspension of a baseball player. But seeing Harvey publicly shamed during a press conference a few days later made me think of just how powerless we all are against the will and wrath of employers, and choosing to participate in the Coliseum-like backlash only makes us all even more fractured and weak.