McGrath: Learn baseball’s lesson, Dr. Emmert, meet players halfway

Staff WriterApril 16, 2014 

After his graduation from Fife High School, future NCAA president Mark Emmert earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Washington, and a master’s and Ph.D in public administration from Syracuse University.

He has been a National Academy of Public Administration Fellow, an American Council of Education Fellow, and a J.W. Fulbright Administration Fellow.

All those degrees and fellowships provide impressive credentials for a challenging job, and far be it from me — a former Summer-School-To-Beef-Up-The-Grade-Point Fellow — to recommend that Emmert find another field to study.

But Emmert could make his life a lot less stressful — and spare the NCAA the fear of a national championship football game potentially cancelled because of a players’ boycott — by learning the history of baseball.

Specifically, the history of baseball after Marvin Miller, an economist for the United Steelworkers union. He was elected to oversee a fledgling players’ association whose constituents’ idea of a collective bargain was a department store’s two-for-the-price-of-one sale on neckties. Miller took the job in 1966, when the minimum annual salary for a big-league player was $7,000, or $1,000 more than it had been in 1946.

Baseball owners controlled contracts for as long as they wanted, under terms they dictated. In 1960, the New York Yankees ordered Mickey Mantle to take a $12,000 pay cut from

his $72,000 annual salary. Mantle had finished the previous season among the American League’s top five in slugging percentage, on-base percentage, total bases, extra-base hits, walks, home runs and stolen bases, but the Yanks didn’t win the pennant, and they decided Mantle was due to be humbled.

Mantle held out of spring training for 12 days, then buckled. He had no agent to state his case, no organized players’ association to back him up.

It was a labor farce that Miller gradually transformed into labor force, the world’s most powerful players’ association. The 1968 collective bargaining agreement increased the minimum salary to $10,000. The next CBA, in 1970, gave players the right to settle disputes with an impartial arbitration panel instead of a commissioner serving as a lap dog for owners.

By 1976, it became possible for veteran players to seek free agency, enabling a day when Carlos Silva, a borderline fifth starter, would be guaranteed $48 million by the Seattle Mariners. (Silva won five games and lost 18 before he was dumped off to the Cubs in a trade that brought the lovely and talented Milton Bradley to Seattle.)

Go ahead and grouse about the ridiculous money big-league mediocrities command nowadays, but know this: If the owners had respected Marvin Miller — had they worked with him rather than against him — baseball doesn’t turn from a game controlled by owners into a game controlled by players.

Owners identified Miller as their worst nightmare, and while they were right about nothing else in their attempts to retain a century-old fiefdom, they were right about that.

Contracts were getting out of hand, the owners concluded in 1980, so they demanded teams be compensated for the departure of any free agent. Miller saw the ploy for what it was — a beef-brained attempt to turn back the clock — and after negotiations were deadlocked for more than a year, the players walked out on June 12, 1981.

Fifty days and 712 cancelled games later, the owners finally surrendered. But they didn’t give up on a fight they were destined to lose, leading to $280 million in penalties for collusion and the ultimate stalemate, in 1994, that ended a season without a pennant race, playoffs or a World Series.

When action resumed three weeks into the 1995 season, the players had conceded nothing.

What’s any of this have to do with Emmert and the NCAA? Only everything. A judge in Chicago recently granted football players at Northwestern the ability to organize as a labor union, citing the 40-50 hours a week they devote to football makes them “employees” of the school, rather than “student-athletes.”

Giving medical plan benefits to former players who have suffered injuries affecting their quality of life was a major inducement for an organized labor association at Northwestern, as was a plea for academic support: The graduation rate for college football players is 50 percent.

A degree might be irrelevant for those lucky few qualified to earn millions of dollars in the NFL, but for everybody else? Falling behind in class, and then failing to graduate — all because of football is virtually a full-time job — is not irrelevant.

Demands for medical benefits and academic support shouldn’t strike anybody as radical, but Emmert sounded tone-deaf about them when he spoke to reporters during the Final Four.

The formation of a college athletes’ labor union, he said, will “blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics ...

“It’s grossly inappropriate.”

Here’s what’s grossly inappropriate: A former college president with a Ph.D in public administration keeping his head in the sand about a looming crisis that demands the savvy and prescience of an accomplished public administrator.

You’re bound to lose this game if you fight it, Dr. Emmert. So clear the sleep from your eyes, remove the earplugs, and search for solutions to meet the athletes’ grievances somewhere around the 50-yard line.

The College Athletic Players Association is in its embryonic phase, but it’s gotten support, both financially and tactically, from the United Steelworkers, a labor union that honed the shrewd negotiating skills of the man who brought baseball owners to their knees.

Marvin Miller.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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