The Draft

When you finished your education, whether it was high school, a trade school or apprenticeship, some sort of college, graduate or professional school, or the military, the next thing on your life’s agenda was probably to find a job.

It took effort. You needed to inventory your skills, assess your prospects, identify who or what companies employed people who could do the things you thought you could do, and then start figuring out how to match up what you had to offer with what others were seeking. You needed to consider such things as where you wanted to live and work and how much you thought you should be paid. You may have considered whether moving to a different town or state or part of the country could improve your chances of finding the work you sought or enable you to get paid more than where you were living at the time.

It sounds more complicated than it really is, but the one thing you had going for you was freedom: you could live wherever you wanted to live, pursue whatever kind of work you wanted to pursue, and, if you found people interested in what you had to offer, select whichever of them you wanted to join. Did you want to work for a large company or a small one? One in the city or the suburbs? A union shop or an open shop? In your home town or anywhere but your home town or near the seashore or the mountains or in the midwest or where the weather was warmer or colder? Sure, we all faced some limits, because we had to find someone who wanted us, but we were embarking on a new phase of our lives and probably had more choices at that time than we’ll ever have again.

Four times in recent months groups of highly skilled young men who have a lot to offer prospective employers were denied the same opportunities the rest of us have. All were athletes and all were subject to the “drafts” in their respective sports: the National Football League draft, held on April 28; the major league baseball draft, held on June 9; the National Basketball Association draft, held on June 23; and the National Hockey League draft, held on June 24.

And The Curmudgeon wants to know why.

Why should the professional sports leagues be permitted to limit the freedom of these young people to pursue their vocations wherever they wish? Why shouldn’t these young people, many of whose skills are in great demand, enjoy the same opportunity the rest us theoretically had to sit down with prospective employers, get a sense of what kind of people they are and what they have to offer, and choose where they will ply their trade?

And the answer that it’s hard to feel sorry for these particular young men because so many of them will be making millions of dollars just doesn’t cut it. First of all, most of them won’t be making millions of dollars; most of them, in fact, will never play in a single professional game.

Second, even if it were true, why should they be denied the right to choose to work where they want to work? After all, no one would tolerate Apple, Microsoft, Google, and other technology companies getting together and deciding how to divide this year’s graduating class of engineers without regard for where those engineers want to work and what kind of work they want to do. Why is such a practice considered acceptable in the world of professional sports?

It’s bad enough that all of the professional sports leagues have salary caps – something they imposed on themselves because the rich white men who own the teams can’t stop themselves from overpaying people, so they created rules to limit how many people they can overpay and how much they can overpay them. And it’s bad enough that even when these young men, against their will, subject themselves to these drafts, they are denied the same job mobility that the rest of us have. Don’t like where you’re teaching or hanging drywall or cleaning teeth or processing insurance claims? You always have the freedom to find someone else you’d rather work for and leave – with two weeks’ notice, if you wish, although that’s really not necessary (because if your employer doesn’t want you he or she isn’t going to extend to you the same courtesy). No, in professional sports, young players have almost no mobility, cannot change teams if they are unhappy with their contract, their coach, their team, their team’s owner, or their team’s customers (that is, the fans); most are bound for a period of years from leaving.

The players in all of the major sports (including hockey, which many people don’t consider a major sport but The Curmudgeon does, and this is, after all, his blog) are members of unions, but those unions clearly aren’t interested in the welfare of all of their members. If they were, they would have addressed this issue long ago, if not at the negotiating table then in court. And you know – you know – they would win: no judge is going to deny to these young men the same rights they themselves, and almost all of the rest of us, already have.

Professional sports are already operated like monopolies: new businesses can’t decide on their own to participate, the owners of the franchises that theoretically should be competing negotiate broadcast and merchandise contracts jointly and share profits, and they impose limits on the mobility of their teams. And it’s bad enough that they impose limits on how much their individual teams may pay their players, as if it’s anyone’s business what a company pays its employees, and they also limit the ability of their employees, the players, to change employers if they wish.

But telling young people who want to enter the sports professions where they must work, and in most sports limiting how much those young people can be paid after they are more or less randomly assigned where to work, is just wrong. You had the ability to ply your trade wherever you chose, subject, of course, to finding someone who wanted you, and these young men deserve no less. They are going to work in an environment that is highly competitive – first, just to get jobs in that environment and then to succeed against their opponents. There is no earthly reason why the owners of the team shouldn’t have to compete for the services of these young men just like every other employer in search of highly skilled talent must do. Similarly, there’s no reason that team owners who made their millions and billions by competing successful in whatever field enriched them should suddenly be free from the need to compete with one another to field the most successful teams.

It’s just not right.

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