I love following the world of sports trades. As the baseball trade deadline looms I obsessively follow MLB Rumors 10-15 times a day. I do the same with waiver wires in my fantasy league and trades in football. I desperately scan minor headlines or obscure blog sites about players traded or notice “monetary considerations” thrown in a trade. Suddenly I stop for a moment and reread. The player was “sold” to a team. The player without any consultation is traded to another team. The Mariner’s just acquired a center fielder who had to jog off the field and discover unbeknownst to him, he had been traded to another team.
Now the world of ethics and history identifies selling people to other people or trading people for people with another name—slavery.
What do I mean by a form of slavery? I mean that a human being and his or her work can be sold to another human or organization for money or in kind trade without the consent of the human being. It is the ultimate in treating the human as a commodity—buy, sell, trade without reference to the human’s consent.
If a person works as an engineer or teacher or mason for a company, that company cannot trade the engineer from say Microsoft to Google. As a Microsoft manager I can’t approach an Adobe manager and say, “I’ve got an up and coming code guy and want to trade him to you for one of your cloud guys.” We don’t allow trades across corporations and we don’t allow Google to come in and tell Microsoft, “I’ll pay you five mill for your number two security security person.”
Now in theory corporations can “loan” people to other units or nonprofits or government, but these loans require the consent of the person. I can be working for a company and that company can be bought and sold without my consent. I can find myself working for a new company overnight without anyone consulting me.
The key, however, lies in the reality that persons can leave the company. This ability to leave any time prevents them from being “slaves” or “indentured servants.” It also lies in the claim that most of them negotiated a contract to work. So the consent lies up front and the freedom lies in the ability to leave.
The slave aspect of most professional athletes extends everywhere—consider international soccer where players can be traded, loaned or rented all without their consent. The moral similarity might be less to slavery but to a related cousin indentured servitude—a person sells their work and freedom to an owner for an extended period of time at which end of time, the person is freed of obligations.
Professional athletes in most cases consent to play for a team. They negotiate a contract. Even this simple reality is complicated by the fact that the teams often have a draft for players. Players are drafted and assigned to sign with the team that drafts them, again without the player’s consent.
The draft is almost all sports is designed to ensure some level of long term competitive balance among teams of different economic wealth. It enables teams with smart scouting and good player development to find gems and develop them and compete successfully against teams that are much richer and tend to cherry pick and buy up established talent.
So owners and teams argue that the good of the sport and competitive balance requires the draft that denies players initial consent of whom they play for. Yet if the draft works to keep competitive balance and more exciting games and a more attractive product, then the distribution of talent should lead to better gate receipts and television contracts. All this should rebound back to player’s long-term benefits with higher salaries especially in sports where the union contracts require players get a certain portion of the net income.
The justifications for this indentured servitude approach grows from the competitive balance logic and an investment return logic. Teams and owners argue that they need time to invest in players and cultivate player development. This is true of all sports but most true for baseball. In Europe such cultivation starts for soccer players in their early teens as it does in a different way for tennis and golf players all over the world. But team sports of high complexity and rare skill depend upon investment and culling. This is a high risk and low return strategy for most teams.
No players are guaranteed stars. Injuries and many aspects of sports and individual life ensure that many “drafted” players never make it to the professional level or never return to the team that cultivates them a strong investment. So teams argue they need some guaranteed time with players to both invest and get a return on their investment. Carried to its logical conclusion, baseball argued players should be signed for life and have no competitive opportunity to play for other teams. This guaranteed that players would give a return but also ensured that teams, not facing any competition for the player’s services, could always extract maximum profit from the players. Curt Flood’s courage and the Supreme Court’s common sense ended the reserve clause and freed up baseball players and all professional athletes to enter into a market relation with teams after their initial time in a team’s fold expired. This lead to free agency and the rise of salaries but also to a much fairer allocation of wealth to players.
Free agency vitiates an immense amount of the long-term impact of indentured servitude. It creates a sort of pot of gold effect for many players who surrender their freedom for a period of time and at that end can reap of high bonus in the free market. But professional sports contracts both the initial time served contract and the later contracts still permit teams to sell or trade players without consulting the players. A few elite players can build in no trade provisions into their contracts, but the vast majority of professional athletes while under contract can be bought/sold/traded at the team’s whim.
The third logic for permitting limited and consent bound indentured servitude is again related to quality of competition considerations. The argument goes like this. Professional athletic talent and skill is extremely rare and often fragile. The vagaries of injuries or failure create endless and constant needs in teams. Teams locked in competitive races seek results quickly. Some team sports have minor league clubs or back up squads where they cultivate players and bring them up. Teams need the right fit for the unpredictable need that arises.
One solution is a market where teams can trade players to each other and seek optimal in-time solutions. This ongoing market permits teams to fill needs and sometimes it helps players find better fits for their own skill set or careers. On one team they may be on the bench behind a starter on another they might get to start. On one team they may have developed a psychological block to performance and in another place, they have a chance to start over. So the teams rely upon a limited market place to permit them to fix needs through trades or purchases.
So the indentured servitude of professional athletes is bound by consent at the beginning and free agency at the end of the indentured time. Many leagues now have minimum salaries to compensate for exploitation of the draft. The indentured effect is most obvious in that a player cannot play for another team during that period and can be traded or sold at the owner/teams decision. Still unique and not something we see anywhere else but now more bound and limited.
Players have adapted. They have formed powerful unions to buffer many of the abuses inherent in indentured servitude. Psychologically they know they will not spend their entire careers at one place. They can use markets to extract the highest return possible for their time limited physical peak years. Players and athletes seldom live in the towns that draft them or the teams they play for. They return home during the off-season and may end up in a different city the next year. They understand the local deals are important but fleeting so players hire agents to protect their long term interests and seek maximum local endorsements for limited periods of time. Modern professional athletes develop a distant but professional loyalty to the sport and excellence but seldom invest it in teammates, owners, locations or managers.
Professional athletes can share the pure joy of winning and feel the affiliation of brothers and sisters competing together for a common purpose. But they invest in local identity and community the way many icons of the past did. Professional athletics is a world of mercenary players and owners and managers seeking to maximize their gains economically and not expecting the psychic or identity gains that used to exist with local icons who became imbedded in communities. It also elevates agents to an extremely high level of importance. The agent becomes the major reference of loyalty and reliance for salary and place, not any temporary team. These adaptations make sense and are no different from any talented professional in a capitalist system with geographic mobility.
In the mid twentieth century playing professional sports did resemble life long indentured servitude. This oligopoly of teams and owners exploited the rare and unique talents of athletes and extracted immense value for little economic return. The existence of free agency changed this in fundamental ways by giving athletes a real market for their talents and a window of time to maximize their worth during their very limited 18-32 age window of maximum physical skill.
The draft and controlled investment return time for teams and owners continue to exist but bound by limits of a market and minimum salaries and in most cases unions and agents who have immense power given the rarity of talent they represent. But we still permit the buying, selling and trading of human beings in a way unique and morally problematic.
The irony here is that the existence of a market in trading and buying players actually layers a level of excitement and interest in fans. It ratchets up pressure on owners and general managers because the trading market provides some chance of quick moves to address team needs. Entire industries of blogs and sports news thrive on following and projecting possible trades. Teams can become buyers or sellers depending upon their possibility of making post season competition and where their needs lie. It ends up with more competitive and interesting and demanding sports and management and more fanatical fans; but it rests of a deeply troubling moral reality.