In antitrust we trust

If baseball's exemption were lifted, real fans might be able to afford tickets, and teams would stop holding cities hostage. Call your congressman.

Published May 19, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

To be a sports fan these days is to be taking a course in economics: Salary caps, arbitration, revenue sharing and large market are terms probably as well known as hit-and-run and full-court press to sports fans who grew up in the '80s. It's gratifying to see that the sports press is catching up on these things, too. Two recent articles are particularly gratifying. The May 15 issue of Sports Illustrated includes a superb feature by E.M. Swift on the effect that corporations are having on ticket prices, and the May 15 issue of the New Yorker has a piece by James Surowiecki on a possible solution to the problem.

Actually, Surowiecki's piece is about baseball's antitrust exemption and how its removal would benefit fans. This is not a new idea; Marvin Miller, former chief economist for the steelworkers union and the first executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, proposed the idea some time ago. In a greatly oversimplified version it was like this: The New York Yankees, or rather, their owner, George Steinbrenner, can hold the city of New York hostage in demand for a new stadium built with public money by threatening to move the Yankees elsewhere.

Miller's and Surowiecki's theory -- and again, I'm oversimplifying -- is that if Major League Baseball's exemption from the antitrust laws were completely repealed, what or who would stop, say, the Oakland A's or Minnesota Twins (or some other disgruntled so-called small-market team) from saying, "Hey, an old stadium without luxury boxes in New York is fine with us, we'll be arriving on the next plane"?

And the answer to that question is: Nothing, and certainly not the commissioner's office, could prevent such a thing from happening -- and that's not oversimplified. Miller's wrinkle was to suggest that absence of the antitrust exemption could only bring about something else that might, in the long run, be more beneficial. What, he suggested, would prevent, say, a new Triple-A minor league franchise from moving into New York, and perhaps another in Brooklyn, and maybe one in Newark, and how about Washington, which has been without big league ball for almost 30 years? And what would prevent them from eventually developing into a competing major league? And, again, the answer to these questions is: If you remove baseball's exemption from antitrust laws, nothing at all could prevent these things from happening.

Swift's story in SI touches on a topic that, judging from radio call-in show traffic, is the hottest in sports right now: the cost of going to a game. I won't bore you with numbers; suffice it to say that every sport has seen a ridiculous rise in ticket prices over the last 10 years. There was a time not too long ago when we could legitimately say that ticket prices shouldn't concern us, that it was simply a case of supply and demand and that if people didn't like the product or didn't think it was worth the price, then they would stop buying and the price would come back down. But with corporations buying up more and more tickets, especially to professional football and basketball games, there are fewer tickets available to average (i.e. "real") fans, and the ones that are available are priced out of the range of working people.

What I'm suggesting is that the removal of all antitrust laws for all professional sports could go a long way toward bringing ticket prices down, as well as saving cities hundreds of millions of dollars on new stadiums. More professional teams, even minor league teams, means more competition for the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and, inevitably, less meat in the corporate-owned seats of big-time professional sports. And that will lower tickets prices faster than the drop in the NBA's Nielsen ratings.

If you're a fan, you're by definition a victim. But that doesn't mean you have to be helpless. You've got a phone, you've got e-mail, you've got stamps and you've got a congressman.

Well, the secret's finally out: Rickey Henderson has an attitude problem. The New York Mets, who released Henderson after he failed to run out an extra-base hit, bitched about his contract and sulked, were quick enough to catch on. After 22 seasons of this kind of public behavior, Henderson wasn't going to continue to pull the wool over their eyes like he did to the '81 A's (playoffs), '89 A's (World Series victory), '90 A's (American League pennant), '92 A's (playoffs), '93 Blue Jays (World Series victory), '96 Padres (playoffs) and, yes, the '99 Mets (playoffs).

I mean, do you think by now everyone has gotten the idea that Henderson is a little, you know, difficult? And maybe those teams acquired him anyway, in full knowledge that he's a pain in the ass, because he wins ballgames? And now, because the Mets have stumbled through the first 40 games of the season, Henderson's attitude is the problem?

Henderson is the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history and one of the 25 or so best players ever. He holds the major league single-season and career records for stolen bases, and is close to the records for walks and runs scored. This doesn't make him one whit easier to like or get along with (though a hundred or so teammates and managers from Billy Martin to Don Mattingly to Mark McGwire to Tony Gwynn don't seem to have had much of a problem). The point is that everyone knows Rickey is a selfish little prick (or, to be fair, that he can act like a selfish little prick) and that they got him for what he can do: get on base, score runs.

Last season, at age 40, he did this better than any leadoff hitter in baseball. This year, at age 41, he has a lousy batting average, and he's not stealing any bases, and he still had the second-highest on-base average on the team. But the Mets aren't winning as they expected, and they're shocked, shocked, to find that Henderson's attitude is as bad as it was when they were winning.

As I write this, Rickey Henderson is newly employed by the Seattle Mariners. I'll give 8-5 odds that by the All-Star Game, Mets manager Bobby Valentine will not have a job in major league baseball.

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When exactly did violent behavior from football players become a National Football League problem? What I mean, of course, is when did it become the NFL's responsibility, its fault? The culture of privilege and elitism that NFL and NBA players are heirs to is taught to them long, long before they get to the pros. It begins, as Bill Russell once reminded us, with athletes who "have been on scholarship since the eighth grade," millions of them funneled toward the couple of hundred college athletic programs that make up the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

There, they're both pampered and exploited, given special equipment and living quarters and set apart from other students, given a virtual free ride on academics and all the time subjected to verbal and psychological abuse by mercenary coaches whose athletic departments exist primarily because of public money and whose interest in the athlete's welfare extends as far as their ability to make jump shots or score touchdowns.

In other words, everything they're fed from high school on teaches them to be aggressive, selfish and cynical. The Bobby Knight incident, if it did nothing else, opened a little door into that world and the massive hypocrisy of amateur athleticism on which it rests. Blame the NFL? Folks, pro football and pro basketball are bastions of values and fair play compared to the NCAA, which is the breeding ground for all these nut cases. Don't ask why there's so much violence among NFL and NBA players. Ask why they were trained by American colleges in the first place.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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