The Atlanta Braves announced on Monday that general manager John Coppolella and special assistant to the GM Gordon Blakeley resigned, part of a fallout . The Braves' statement read: "The resignation comes as a result of a breach of Major League Baseball rules regarding the international player market."
John Hart takes over as Atlanta's acting general manager until the team finds a replacement. Coppolella and Blakeley step down after engineering a dramatic and impressive turnaround in organizational talent. The Braves could become a very good team in the near future, and two of the biggest architects won't be around to see that success happen.
You can read some of the allegations against Coppolella and Blakely here and decide for yourself what might (or might not) have gone down. You can wonder how MLB thinks it will ever properly regulate the international market in the first place, given the under-the-table deals that continue to happen constantly, even under supposedly stricter rules.
But the bigger issue is that a hard cap on international spending exists in the first place, thus exploiting teenagers in poorer countries who have zero bargaining power.
And more broadly, that both amateur and professional sports organizations stomp on the rights of athletes to enrich those in power.
And that all of us as sports fans aid and abet a corrupt system, and lambast any policy or practice that might interfere with our enjoyment of games, because we believe we're entitled to drama-free entertainment, any time, all the time.
This is what we're doing when we celebrate our team landing a prized athlete from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic for millions less than that player's true market value. We praise our favorite team's shrewd negotiating skills and think nothing of the teenager who doesn't get to negotiate under fair, unfettered labor standards. If anything, we declare these 16-year-olds lucky to get to play professional baseball and that they should feel grateful that they've been rescued from their otherwise less fortunate lives.
This is what we're doing when we discuss student-athletes in America. When our favorite school lands a five-star, blue-chip prospect, we cheer. We never pause to consider the moral implications of a system that turns athletic departments into billion-dollar enterprises, while the players who make that value possible don't get paid actual salaries for their work. What about the free education they get, we argue. What about the free shoes, free meals, the right to represent their school? These kids should feel grateful, we say, that they ever got the opportunity to play in the first place.
This is what we're doing when we discuss the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL drafts. We hang on every word uttered by draft experts, and dissect each prospect's every skill down to the nub, commoditizing their very existence. When our favorite team selects a player Mel Kiper likes, we cheer. We never stop to consider that maybe drafts are, in fact, immoral. We don't take the time to wonder if players entering these drafts should be entitled to shop their services as they see fit, to anyone they want, the way people in other professions can. We never ponder that rookie spending caps benefit nobody except the billionaire owners of sports franchises, while suppressing the rights of workers. Instead, we hear how these kids finally get to realize their lifelong dreams ... never mind if the terms of those dreams are set by other parties who want to take as much money and bargaining power away from them as possible.
This is also what we're doing when we weigh in on athletes' right to protest. We salute the flag and recite the anthem, secure in our comfortable lives, never having to consider those less fortunate than we are. We yell and curse and flip off TV sets and burn jerseys when we see athletes kneeling, sitting, linking arms or doing anything that might not precisely conform to what we believe should be done during the act of forced patriotism that is the pregame anthem. We don't consider the plight of those with different backgrounds than ours, and how some athletes choose to protest in the names of those whose voices are never heard. We just want to watch our sports, and these ungrateful athletes are forcing us to think about uncomfortable things that have nothing to with nickel defenses and three-run homers. Damn them for doing that.
We can -- we must -- do better. The system is rigged to benefit ownership and punish labor, and that's unacceptable. Abolishing the mechanisms that perpetuate that unfair system is a vital first step toward justice in sports.
Scrap the limits on international spending in baseball. Pay student-athletes for their work, at a level that properly reflects their value to their athletic programs. Eliminate amateur drafts in all sports. Throw pro sports' salary caps in the trash. While you're at it, lift the restrictions on Japanese baseball stars like Shohei Otani, who will likely sign for $150 million less than he's worth this winter, because MLB owners colluded to tamp down his earning power, for no reason other than they could get away with screwing him over.
The counterarguments to these ideas are predictable. Fans fear that competitive balance will be lost if these changes occur.
First, it's not clear that this is true in every case. Alabama has already forged a dynasty in college football under the current rules; what does that have to do with Julio Jones and Amari Cooper and Derrick Henry and O.J. Howard getting what's rightfully theirs? In the big four North American team sports, Major League Baseball stands furthest from having a hard salary cap. It has also seen more parity over the past 30 years than the NFL, NBA and NHL. As for the NBA, superteams still get built with a cap already in place. The only parties that benefit from Kevin Durant not being able to make what he's actually worth are Joe Lacob and the rest of the NBA's owners, who get to keep a greater share of the sport's profits.
If we do believe that competitive balance would be seriously threatened by these changes, though, there are always countermeasures that can be taken. Teams can share revenue more aggressively, so that the profit gap that separates bigger and smaller markets gets narrowed. Leagues can also take more aggressive steps, such as ending the restriction of territory rights, so that teams can move to more lucrative markets as desired.
Other challenges exist, too. For one thing, the players' unions that represent the top levels of each professional sport would need to care enough about players lower on the totem pole to bring these concerns to the table during collective bargaining talks. Given that the Major League Baseball Players Association has done very little to advocate for the rights of minor-league players who reap sub-minimum wage earnings, eat the cheapest junk food possible and live five- or six-deep in tiny apartments, it's hard to imagine them suddenly caring now. The same holds true for age restrictions in the NFL and NBA. The owners want a restrictive system to tamp down scouting costs and keep the NCAA feeder system alive and well, while professional players and their union don't want to waste one of their precious bargaining chips on a matter that doesn't affect their current members. (This Roger Noll paper dives deeper into the subject of monopolies and antitrust law, with obvious implications for the sports world.)
Finally, there's the $64,000 question: Would owners simply walk away from the bargaining table if unions suddenly grew a conscience and started demanding the kind of freedoms that workers in other professions get -- whether the workers involved were part of their member rolls, or waiting in Venezuela or at Ohio State to join?
This is where we, the fans, should come in. We need to care about issues that go well beyond whether the team that plays in the stadium closest to our house (the one paid for with our own taxpayer dollars to further enrich owners, usually without our consent) scores more points than the visiting team. Competitive balance is a worthy goal if you're running a sports league. An even worthier goal is to treat athletes like human beings. To give them the kind of bargaining rights that we as fans get to have in our own jobs. To give them the space to speak their minds and protest how they choose, when they choose, free of our selfish, privilege-tinged objections that they just play the damn games.
Sports leagues shouldn't be forgiven for exploiting labor forces, regardless of the salaries the top 0.000001 percent of that labor force might make. Athletes do not owe us entertainment without self-reflection. We are not automatically entitled to watch athletes battle for us, gladiator-style, without considering how real life might get in the way.
If we want to enjoy sports for the entertaining pastimes they are, we should also consider that real human beings are putting their bodies, even their lives on the line to make us happy. We should demand that the oligarchs who run the pro sports leagues and rule the college ranks likewise treat those athletes like the fully formed human beings that they are. Turning a blind eye to these injustices, demanding that we ignore all these wrongs and stick to sports, would be nothing less than a moral failing on our part.
The sports world needs to do better. It's time for we the fans to start demanding that it does.