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Jimmy Butler, Le’Veon Bell, and the Season of Fighting for Player Power

Baseball analyst Bill James says that players are replaceable. This fall, stars across leagues have put that notion to the test. Their varying success has shown how much leverage individual players have—and provided a clearer template for how unions can work to shape the future of sports.

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“If the players all retired tomorrow, we would replace them, the game would go on; in three years it would make no difference whatsoever,” Bill James wrote last Wednesday, to immediate and overwhelming outrage and ridicule. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark denounced James’s remarks, as did several current and former players, led by Astros pitcher Justin Verlander. Meanwhile the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, whom James works for as a consultant, distanced themselves from James’s comments.

It’s not the first time James has said something controversial—nowadays, the father of sabermetrics is like a dad out of a 1980s sitcom. His assertion, part of a discussion about whether baseball players are overpaid, not only ignores fans’ attachment to individual players but is also almost certainly wrong from a quality of play standpoint—if the best 1,300 or so ballplayers in the world vanished (1,379 players appeared in at least one MLB game in 2018), we’d notice that the on-field product wasn’t as good. As a whole, the players aren’t replaceable.

But James’s ill-considered musings, and the opprobrium they touched off, come at an interesting time. MLB is entering a pivotal offseason that will show the disconcertingly slow 2017-18 hot stove campaign to be either an aberration or the new normal. And in three of the other major North American men’s sports leagues, one of the most persistent story lines of the fall has been a star player making a noisy and risky stand for a raise or a trade: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell in the NFL, new Philadelphia 76ers wing Jimmy Butler in the NBA, and Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander in the NHL.

James got laughed out of the room—which is tough to do on the internet—for saying that MLB’s players as a whole are replaceable. Bell, Butler, and Nylander are all betting big on a similar but crucially distinct issue: How irreplaceable is a single player on his own? Player salaries are depressed by numerous forces, from the draft to salary caps and luxury taxes to restrictions on free agency outside the pure, unadulterated hand of the free market. This fall, we’ve had several opportunities to observe what happens when a player pushes back against that structure.

Bell, Butler, and Nylander have all attempted to cash in on their own importance to the team, but the rules and culture of each of their respective leagues has as much to do with the outcome of their holdouts as each player’s talent and his front office’s disposition.

Bell held out during training camp last year when the Steelers placed the franchise tag on him, but signed the $12.1 million franchise tender and played in 15 regular-season games. After another tag and another preseason holdout in 2018, Bell this time continued to sit out through opening day; after missing Tuesday’s final deadline to report, he will not play at all this season.

While NFL rules governing Bell’s situation are complex, the reason for the holdout is straightforward: Bell does a dangerous job for less money than he’s worth and he wants financial security before he takes the field again. While just a decade ago, running backs were superstars, now they’re largely expendable. Running backs like Bell often find themselves worked hard early in their careers then discarded after their rookie contracts are up. Bell is too good to be considered entirely disposable, but he’s cognizant of the risk his workload presents.

“I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs,” Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in October. “But I’ve gotta take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”

Since entering the league in 2013, Bell has been one of the most productive offensive players in the NFL, and as the league has embraced spreading the ball around now more than ever, Bell has remained one of football’s few workhorse backs. From 2013 to 2017, he was second in the league to LeSean McCoy in both touches (by 30) and yards from scrimmage (by 20 yards), despite playing in just 62 games to McCoy’s 75. Bell’s workload and skill are so great because he impacts the game not only as a runner but as a receiver—in five NFL seasons he’s caught 75 or more passes three times—and his pay ought to reflect that versatility.

Bell has almost certainly played his last game for Pittsburgh—the cost to franchise tag him a third time could be in excess of $25 million and the team’s moved on with local favorite James Conner as a feature back, and Conner’s racked up 1,158 yards of total offense and 11 touchdowns in nine games. Bell will get his long-term deal elsewhere from one of the 31 other teams, but at the cost of an entire season of his career—a career that’s already short by virtue of his sport, and particularly his position.

While Bell’s story has been relatively straightforward, Butler’s is nothing short of bizarre. In the summer of 2017, the Minnesota Timberwolves traded for Butler, an exceptional two-way player and basketball’s biggest red ass, to complement Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, two talented but frequently somnambulant former no. 1 overall picks. It didn’t really work—Butler clashed with Wiggins and Towns and the Timberwolves finished eighth in the West. This September, Butler, entering his age-29 season, demanded a trade after just one season. Assuming he declines his player option for 2019-20, Butler is in the last year of his contract, and only by re-signing with his current team could he earn a max deal of five years and $190 million. This is Butler’s one big chance to cash in, and because of his age, his injury history (he’s played 70 games just twice in seven full seasons), and the hard minutes he’s played under Tom Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota, he’s after his one and likely only big deal now. If he’d played out the season with the Timberwolves, he would’ve had to limit his earning power or return to a situation in which nobody was happy.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor seemed prepared to oblige Butler, but Thibodeau, wearing two hats as head coach and president of basketball operations, rejected the idea out of hand. So Butler ended his holdout after three weeks, came back to practice and shouted a lot, and played intermittently (and with one foot out the door) for the past month. On Saturday, the Wolves finally shipped him off to Philadelphia.

Whether this is a win for any of the parties involved—the Sixers, the Timberwolves, or Butler himself—remains to be seen. From Butler’s perspective, he moves to a better team and will likely get the kind of contract extension he’s been after from any trade partner. Butler is out of Minnesota and onto a team with a better shot at a title, and he’s on track to get paid. As for a more harmonious work environment, that remains to be seen; it’s anyone’s guess how well Butler will get along with the Sixers’ two young stars, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Over in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs also recently added a veteran superstar, center John Tavares, to their talented, young homegrown core of forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, and defenseman Morgan Rielly. Nylander, however, is absent from the team in the midst of his own contract dispute.

Leafs GM Kyle Dubas offered Nylander, a 22-year-old coming off back-to-back 61-point seasons, a deal with about $6.5 million a year. Nylander’s agent, Lewis Gross, is apparently looking for something in the $8 million range, comparing Nylander to Oilers center Leon Draisaitl, who’s on pace for a third straight 70-point season in 2018-19. Nylander’s probably worth more than $6.5 million but isn’t as good as Draisaitl, but the two sides haven’t been able to come to a compromise. Nylander’s already missed 18 games, or more than a fifth of the season, and if he doesn’t report by December 1, he’ll have to sit out the entire year. Already, Dubas and Gross are at such an impasse that it’s more likely that Nylander will be traded than sign a long-term extension with Toronto this year.

Butler got his trade and will likely get his extension, while Bell’s one-man stand was a Pyrrhic victory at best and Nylander’s future is still up in the air. The difference between these scenarios all comes down to the player’s ability to leverage his own talents against the team’s desire not to pay him what he’s worth. Can his absence or disobedience hurt the team enough to make them pony up?

Butler was able to create enough leverage to force a trade because he’s one of the best 20 or so players in the league. The Timberwolves not only devoted a fifth of their salary cap to paying Butler, but they’re a year removed from sending three lottery picks—Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn—to Chicago for him. For a team that’s trying to contend in the near future, letting Butler sit out or disrupt the team from the inside for a season, then letting him walk for nothing as a free agent next summer, simply wasn’t an option.

Particularly because in basketball, more than any other North American sport, one player can have an outsize impact on the game. This is demonstrated by the fact that LeBron James can turn a lottery team into a playoff team pretty much all on his own, while the best players in NHL and MLB—Connor McDavid and Mike Trout—play for teams that usually don’t even get particularly close to the postseason. If Butler’s a better basketball player than Bell is a football player, it’s not by much, but it takes more than two or three good players to make a good football team.

Football’s culture is particularly reflective of that fact. Players have to at least tolerate their teammates and listen to their coaches because no amount of individual brilliance can overcome organizational incoherence at a team level. Combined with an almost paramilitary level of obedience that grows out of the game’s violence and hypermasculine culture, these factors lead the sport to being extremely intolerant of players who rock the boat. NFL contract structures promote compliance as well—because football contracts are non-guaranteed and tend to be incentive-heavy, players who make waves, even without holding out, open themselves up to financial risk.

The same is true of hockey—it’s run by an old boys’ network that enforces norms about player movement and also restricts player behavior and self-expression and protects an entrenched power structure. The NHL has agreed to settlement terms on a lawsuit with former players over concussions for just $19 million for some 146 plaintiffs. Rick Westhead of TSN quoted an attorney involved in the case as saying that the players couldn’t get a deal: “Because the NHL didn’t feel pressure. There were more than 4,000 plaintiffs in the NFL case. We had 140. NHL players were afraid to be ostracized. And star players who could have at least lent their support to their former teammates just didn’t do that.”

While Nylander was holding out, Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, a former All-Star winger himself, lauded Tavares as a model citizen for taking less money to sign in Toronto, as if being underpaid is a positive ethical good and not worker exploitation.

“We were able to attract a player like that who could have made more money elsewhere, who is still doing very, very well financially,” Shanahan said. “But it wasn’t his responsibility to set a new bar or please other people with other interests. … [T]hat is what we hope for and expect from our players moving forward. It’s not for everyone, but the ones who will play here, that is what we want from them and I think that’s what we want from each other.”

It’s dispiriting to hear that from a former player, but Shanahan is management now, so it’s to be expected at a certain level. What’s truly troubling is the tepid support from Matthews and Marner, who are not only close friends of Nylander’s, but will be facing restricted free agency themselves in the next nine months. In the same article in which Shanahan laid out his vision of everyone taking less, Ken Campbell of The Hockey News quoted Matthews’s take on Nylander’s holdout.

“That’s why we’ve got agents, right?” Matthews said. “Let them figure it out, talk to management. We’ll stay out of it and just play hockey.”

Bell got even less support from his teammates. As the start of the 2018 season approached with no end to the holdout in sight, Steelers offensive lineman Ramon Foster raked Bell over the coals: “Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn,” Foster said. “He’s making seven times what I make, twice as much as Al [Villanueva, Pittsburgh’s left tackle] is making, and we’re the guys who do it for him.”

What makes Foster’s comments even more inflammatory is that he’s the Steelers’ representative to the NFLPA. There’s not having worker solidarity, and then there’s having your union rep go to the press and call you selfish for seeking to be paid what you’re worth. Bell’s teammates haven’t gone any easier on him over the past two months; when the reporting deadline passed, Bell’s teammates removed his nameplate from his locker and divided the items he’d left behind among themselves.

These sentiments are reflected far too frequently among fans who root for the team and not the players who make it up and are aware of the limitations the salary cap can impose on a team’s ability to compete. Bell and Nylander are offered millions to do a fun, glamorous job, and for someone struggling to make ends meet while doing alienating work (or rich fans who view themselves as management class), turning down that opportunity can be offensive. But it’s to ownership’s advantage for fans to ignore how the cap, the draft, and norms that punish holdouts funnel money from players to billionaire owners without reducing the cost of tickets, concessions, or consumers’ cable bills.

Contrast Nylander’s and Bell’s situations to Butler’s. In Butler’s case, a lack of support from teammates helped him get what he wanted because he wanted a trip out of town. But leaguewide, NBA stars expect a degree of self-determination unfathomable to their counterparts in hockey, football, and even baseball. Almost every team with designs on winning an NBA title in the near future has at least one key player who forced a less-than-amicable exit from his previous team.

This is the result of strong messaging by the players’ union under executive director Michele Roberts. Far from valuing competitive balance or labor peace, Roberts laughed off the league’s requests for a slower-growing salary cap following a lucrative TV deal and pushed back on institutions like the salary cap itself. The mere recognition that the union-league relationship is an adversarial one put Roberts light-years ahead of her counterparts in baseball. After decades of acrimonious but largely successful labor leadership under Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, the MLBPA got gun-shy after the 1994 strike resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. MLB hasn’t even come close to a work stoppage since 2002—the first of four collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) in which Rob Manfred, first as league vice president and later as commissioner, took increasingly large slices of the pie for ownership.

In addition to a strong professional union boss in Roberts, NBPA leadership now includes star players like LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Chris Paul, who lend credibility to the NBPA with the public. The personalities who inspire fans to buy tickets and jerseys are also the faces of the league’s labor union. This reinforces the idea that the players are the product, but it comes with an unfortunate side effect.

Even in a strong, cohesive union like the NBPA, one that won a rare victory for sports labor in its latest CBA, those gains have privileged stars like Paul and James. Players are only eligible for the “supermax” contract—such as Russell Westbrook’s five-year, $207 million deal—after no fewer than seven years in the NBA, forcing players like Embiid and Anthony Davis to play for less than their true value during their mid-to-late 20s. And like all sports unions, the NBPA neglected to protect future members by going after the draft or the rookie salary structure. As long as stars run the union, the union will serve stars who were already at the top of the league’s salary structure.

The NBA’s CBA is therefore only a partial success for the players as a whole, and a partial success is the best that can be expected from the kind of limited industry solidarity the NBPA is able to generate. Players are stronger individually in basketball than in any other sport, and their union has stronger leadership and—even with its star-dominated leadership—more unified messaging. That allows the NBPA to stem the tide of pro-management forces that have steamrolled the players in hockey, football, and baseball over the past 20 years, if not to roll it back.

With across-the-board labor battles on the horizon, athletes from all sports need to figure out what a successful labor strategy looks like in this day and age. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association has opted out of its CBA and is headed for a confrontation with the league without anything resembling coherent leadership and messaging, a misstep that could threaten the existence of the WNBA and its union. None of the major men’s sports leagues are in danger of going out of business given their profitability, but it’s possible, though unlikely, that if the WNBPA misplays its hand badly enough, its members could find themselves without an American league to play in. The NHL, which has locked out its players three times since 1994, can also opt out of its CBA in 2019. The NFL CBA, which was negotiated under a lockout in 2011, expires after the 2020 season. Baseball, after more than 20 years of taking pride in labor peace, is already gearing up for a work stoppage when the current CBA expires after the 2021 season. What ideal of player power can athletes in those leagues aspire to?

The single greatest positive success in sports labor in the 21st century belongs to the U.S. women’s national hockey team. The U.S. was one of the favorites to win the 2017 IIHF World Championship on home ice in Plymouth Township, Michigan, and 16 days before the tournament was supposed to start, the players on the senior U.S. national team announced they were boycotting the tournament over issues of pay, arrangements for training, and unequal promotion compared to their counterparts on the men’s team. They won substantial concessions, as well as a promise for investment in girls’ youth hockey to help grow the next generation of American players, in a deal struck three days before the tournament started.

The players, led by team captain Meghan Duggan, pulled this off for two reasons. First, they picked the right moment to strike, two weeks before a tournament that USA Hockey needed to field a competitive team for in order to avoid international embarrassment. Duggan and her teammates are relatively unknown compared to their male counterparts—if they’d walked out when USA Hockey had months or years to field a replacement team, they would have essentially ended their careers for nothing. Only by putting time pressure on management were they able to strengthen their bargaining position.

Bell, Nylander, and Butler all made their demands during the offseason, when their teams could plan for their absence; in Bell’s case, the Steelers had months to line up Conner as a replacement. Bell still has not given in, but for all his resolve he’s still out more than $14 million. Management has more financial resources and operates on longer time horizons than labor does, and therefore is better equipped to win a siege. Players are strongest when they put time pressure on management, like the women’s national team striking just before the World Championships, and the MLBPA has in the past by striking while the league is preparing to cash in on postseason baseball. The MLBPA, in its early years under Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr, struck four times just before the season or during the season, in 1972, 1981, 1985, and 1994, but no major sports union has had the audacity to interrupt a season since. Unfortunately for the players, the timing of contract negotiations makes it difficult to put that kind of pressure on teams individually.

The second thing the U.S. women’s hockey team did was generate support from outside the team’s roster. After the strike, Duggan said that if USA Hockey had been able to find replacements quickly, the whole enterprise would’ve been for nothing, and she was right. Duggan and other senior players from Team USA called other professional, semipro, college, and even high school and beer league players across the country, outlining their position and convincing any potential replacement players not to cross the picket line. In two weeks, USA Hockey was able to find just six players willing to do so—everyone else had already been recruited by Duggan and her teammates.

This is an extreme but illuminating illustration of the most significant way in which players—and workers in general—can push back against ownership. Any individual worker, even absolute, top-tier superstars like Tom Brady or James or McDavid, is replaceable to a certain extent—ownership just has too much power and too many resources for any athlete to stand up alone. But without labor, there is no product—and therefore no profit. What Duggan understood is that the wider the base of worker support, the stronger the bargaining position. Bill James was only partially right: Individual players can be replaced, but when the entire labor force stands up and walks out as one, management can’t just carry on as usual.

Bell’s situation isn’t fair, nor is Nylander’s, or even Butler’s to a certain extent. But fairness doesn’t matter as much as power, and there’s no power in standing alone.

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