On Thursday, Dirk Nowitzki, the NBA’s active leader in games and minutes played, points, free throws, and defensive rebounds, re-signed with the Dallas Mavericks for $10 million over two years. Compared to Nowitzki’s $25 million team option for 2017–18, which Dallas declined, it’s a huge haircut for the future Hall of Famer, but Nowitzki is 39 years old and coming off a season in which he played fewer minutes per game (and fewer games overall), scored fewer points per game, and attempted fewer shots per game than he had in any season since his rookie year. Nowitzki is certainly on the decline, and far from his MVP form of a decade ago.
Still, Nowitzki will make less over his two-year deal than free-agent bench guy Amir Johnson will make with the Sixers next season alone. He’ll make $8 million less per year than Joe Ingles (career high 7.1 PPG in his age-29 season last year), less than half as much as Zach Randolph, who’s almost as old as Nowitzki, and only a half-million per year more than Justin — not Jrue, Justin — Holiday. But this deal keeps him with the only NBA franchise he’s ever played for, and Nowitzki has already made over a quarter of a billion dollars in salary over his career. While some might question the wisdom of taking an 80 percent pay cut to keep living in Texas and playing for a lottery-bound club, he’s a grown-up and can do what he likes.
Like Golden State’s Kevin Durant, who’s fresh off a $10 million pay cut of his own, Nowitzki can do whatever he likes, but that doesn’t make it admirable.
The putative reason Durant took less money to stay with the Warriors was so that money could be redistributed to his teammates and strengthen the team’s roster. To Golden State’s credit, that’s happened: Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala got pay bumps, and Nick Young, the NBA’s god of folly, came up the coast from the Lakers at a cost of $5.2 million. The rules that govern NBA salaries and transactions are Byzantine to say the least — just look at all the shifting pieces behind Chris Paul’s move to the Rockets from the Clippers — but in short, Durant’s pay cut didn’t make the Livingston and Iguodala extensions possible, it made them cheaper, both in terms of the Warriors’ overall salary outlay and in terms of their luxury tax bill. Warriors ownership, led by venture capitalist Joe Lacob, could have paid Durant, Livingston, and Iguodala and just gone deeper into the luxury tax, but they chose not to. (Maybe Young doesn’t come over as the team’s midlevel exception if Durant takes the max, but I don’t think Swaggy P is going to be what puts the Warriors over the top in 2017–18.)
Meanwhile, the Mavericks, who finished 11th in the Western Conference last season, are almost certainly not going to make the playoffs this season, and have thus far failed to attract any notable free agents. That shouldn’t be Nowitzki’s problem, anyway; his job is to use his arsenal of YMCA dad moves to score points, not assemble a competitive roster.
But as The Ringer’s Danny Chau wrote when Durant first signed, "Durant’s decision makes it painfully clear that it will always be the players who have to make ‘sacrifices,’ never the owners."
On the grand scale of global economic injustice, Durant making $25 million next year and not $34.5 million isn’t even a drop in the bucket. Since time immemorial, people have complained about how much athletes get paid, and to be totally frank, those complaints aren’t without merit. Durant is a godlike basketball figure, a former league MVP, last year’s Finals MVP, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a four-time scoring champion, and an eight-time All-Star. Countless millions of people, including me, love watching him play basketball, and while there’s great value in entertaining the public, he’s not healing the sick, teaching people to read, or performing any function that’s strictly essential to society as we know it. On some level, Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler’s much-pilloried take about Steph Curry (who is himself underpaid according to LeBron James’s treatise on the intersection of basketball and the labor theory of value) making the equivalent of 1,000 schoolteachers’ salaries is spot-on. We probably would be better off if we took $40 million from either Lacob or Curry and spent it on teachers.
Of course, that’s not the choice Durant or Nowitzki made. In an egalitarian utopia, sports teams would be public utilities, like a parks department or a library system, provided by a city for the emotional and intellectual well-being of its citizens. Sports teams are essentially civic institutions now anyway, and average people take great pride in their success, to the point where we root for the institution, sometimes — specifically when it comes to salary negotiations — against the individual athletes who make it successful.
Sports owners have co-opted that civic pride and are squeezing not only their workers but us fans. Civic pride causes us to support "Dallas" or "Golden State" or "New York," but sports owners, who will charge you $11 for beer because they can, have insinuated themselves into that relationship, to their great profit. It’s perverse, but predictable in a society that’s so devoutly capitalist that politicians run as "pro-business" (as opposed to "pro-people") and we vote for them by the tens of millions.
Make no mistake, the Warriors aren’t a public utility, but a for-profit business, so their labor savings here aren’t being passed on to the consumer. The average Warriors ticket — in the Bay Area, the Xibalba of Gentrification — cost 69 percent more in 2015–16 than it did the year before. Now that Durant’s taking a pay cut, Lacob’s organization is raising the cost of season tickets 16.9 percent in 2017–18. As little as $10 million means to Durant, or $20 million to Nowitzki, it means even less to Lacob and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
So we, the fans, the citizens who buy tickets and jerseys and overpriced hot dogs and pay the taxes that fund arena construction, aren’t getting that money back, whether in cash or in the way we would with parks or libraries or higher teacher salaries — short of worldwide proletarian revolution. It’s either going to Durant and Nowitzki, who are what make basketball compelling, or the owners, whose function in society is to turn millions of dollars into billions of dollars.
Without players, the owners would have no product at all. Without owners, players would have to hire their own administrative and marketing arms, which probably wouldn’t cost anywhere near the 50 percent of basketball-related revenue the owners get. I like watching Durant and Nowitzki play basketball, but I don’t know what function owners serve that couldn’t be filled more cheaply and effectively by hired-gun administrators in a league owned by the players. Meanwhile, Lacob is a venture capitalist. Cuban is a relic of the dot-com bubble turned reality television heel. Cuban sometimes veers into taking the title "owner" too literally, while Lacob has a weird relationship with the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but they’re relatively benign as billionaires go. For as much as Durant and Nowitzki aren’t healing the sick, though, Lacob and Cuban don’t even make you smile — unless you’re a fan of Shark Tank or throwing money at a 3-D orthodontics company.
That’s more than you could say for Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who as the former CEO of Microsoft was complicit in making Internet Explorer your default web browser, even though it doesn’t work that well. Some NBA owners, like the Lakers’ Jeanie Buss and the Knicks’ James Dolan, did nothing more to deserve their billion-dollar piece of the basketball pie than being born into the right family.
Other NBA owners actively, often primarily, profit from the immiseration of working people. Bucks owner Wes Edens is either a "subprime scion" if you read the New York Post or the "king of subprime lending" if you read the Wall Street Journal. Rockets owner Leslie Alexander owns a stake in a for-profit student loan company. Richard DeVos, the nonagenarian owner of the Orlando Magic, made his fortune running a pyramid scheme and funds organizations that fight against LGBT rights. Dan Gilbert, the typographically creative owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers — last seen standing athwart the boneheaded double of anointing the inexperienced Chauncey Billups to run his organization, then lowballing the TV commentator into turning the gig down — rode into his native Detroit on a white horse, promising to alleviate the urban blight that his company, Quicken Loans, had been instrumental in creating.
The players aren’t blameless. Many of them, most notably Michael Jordan, who crossed over and bought the Charlotte Hornets, see themselves as tycoons in the making, not laborers. In other words, they see ownership as role models, not the people keeping them down. Under the leadership of Chris Paul, the players’ union has fought for provisions like the supermax contract (which benefits superstars and teams) instead of using that negotiating capital to go after something, like abolishing the draft or restricted free agency, or even a higher percentage of revenue, that would have been a greater benefit to the union’s poorest members. Even among workers, the rich exploit the poor.
After all, Durant and Nowitzki could have demanded to be paid what they’re worth. Nowitzki in particular, as the immensely popular face of a franchise that’s treading water, is the rare athlete who could win the PR battle in a contract dispute against the abrasive Cuban.
Perhaps Nowitzki and the Mavericks have a handshake deal regarding Nowitzki’s post-basketball career, but a sinecure special assistant to the GM role likely wouldn’t pay $10 million a year — even if the whole arrangement didn’t smack of cap circumvention. And sure, being close to Silicon Valley helps Durant network with the business leaders he might one day hope to become, though in the age of videoconferencing and private jets, physical location matters much less than it used to. Durant was a global icon when he played in Oklahoma City, after all. And though it’s been said that both Nowitzki and Durant could make their money back through endorsements, Nowitzki has famously eschewed endorsement deals, except for his Nike contract, and it doesn’t matter if Durant makes the money back through endorsements. Why couldn’t he have signed the bigger deal and still garnered all the same endorsements?
Besides, a couple of lost millions for super-rich athletes aren’t the real problem here.
In today’s American labor culture, demanding to be paid the value of your labor is frequently painted as "not being a team player," which is a cardinal sin for a team sport athlete. Athletes are trained not only to play a game, but to be obedient and to respect people in power just because they’re powerful, and regardless of whether they’re shown the same respect in return. When Durant or Nowitzki — themselves both worth hundreds of millions of dollars — gets mesmerized by that power, it’s not a huge deal. But when the lessons of those relationships get translated to ordinary worker-employer relationships, it is. When was the last time your boss used the phrase "be a team player" and gave you good news? Why should you sacrifice for your employer?
Suffice it to say, I’d rather the odd $10 million go to the players, and not the owners. And unless you’re in the business of ripping off housewives or saddling college kids with lifelong debt or kicking people out of their homes, so should you.