Labour-Power (& Load Management)

7 mins read
Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

Two weeks ago, having written about the fecklessness of siding with ownership against labour, I received pushback on one idea:

Which brings us to leverage. Players (labour) rarely have much. Kawhi, bless him, has made it a personal challenge to explore just how much leverage a player (labour) can yield.

Revising these lines, I regret the frequency with which I use “leverage” (twice), “player” (twice), and “(labour)” (twice), but I wanted to make the point that players, no matter how fabulously wealthy, no matter how lucky—to play basketball as a job!—are nonetheless labour. And our attitude toward players speaks about our attitude toward labour more generally.

Mike$ (very politely) disagrees. He makes the point that basketball players have much more leverage than other athletes. Since my knowledge is limited to North American examples, let’s consider the four major North American leagues: NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Contracts in the NFL are short and unguaranteed. MLB and NHL contracts have a lower average annual value. Thus, of the four options, NBA players clearly enjoy the most leverage, agreed.

I also agree with Mike$’s point that there is probably not an organization in the league that LeBron hasn’t impacted. Though, since he was the best basketball player in the world for so many years, I find this fact unsurprising. They changed the rulebook because of Shaq. Jordan changed everything. Likewise, that LeBron has the leverage to get coaches fired and organizations to shift directions seems an uncontroversial truth.

But it is also true that for all his power, LeBron, if he wanted to play NBA basketball in his home state, had no choice but to play for and enrich a man who had written him hatemail in Comic Sans.

Are performers not labour? What about clowns? A search of reveals that the average hourly wage for a clown is $28 USD/hour. Does that make them labour? Is there a limit on our earnings before we too become owners?

And why coaches?

Lewro mentions the CBA in his reply, which is the collective bargaining agreement between players and ownership. Among its many clauses the most important might be the one that states that “the players’ share of Basketball Related Income [should remain] between 49 and 51 percent.” Roughly half. This is split between the roughly 450 players in the league.

The other half goes to the owners.


The argument seems to go that, because LeBron and his body and his skills (his labour-power) are so invaluable, he has transcended the ranks of labour. This is true to the extent that LeBron is a capitalist. He has his own companies (Uninterrupted, SpringHill Entertainment, 10% of Blaze Pizza), which derive profit off the capital he has invested in them.

But even though LeBron James—businessman—is a capitalist, LeBron James—basketball player—is still labour. And:

[The worker’s labour-power] is the only commodity which he can and must sell continually in order to live, and which acts as capital (variable) only in the hands of the buyer, the capitalist. The fact that a man is continually compelled to sell his labour-power, i.e., himself, to another man proves… that he is a capitalist, because he constantly has “commodities” (himself) for sale.

It’s difficult to see it out of context, but this Karl Marx quote is deeply ironic. He thinks it’s ridiculous to consider a person who is compelled to “sell himself” to another person a capitalist. He drives the point home with his next example.

In that sense a slave is also a capitalist, although he is sold by another once and for all as a commodity; for it is in the nature of this commodity, a labouring slave, that its buyer does not only make it work anew every day, but also provides it with the means of subsistence that enable it to work ever anew. (—Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 2, chapter 20, section 10.)

NBA players are perhaps among the least sympathetic symbol of labour to the common man, being, as they are, unfathomably rich, tall, and athletic, but they are still labour in the context of the NBA. And as unfathomably rich as players are, owners are far richer.

Think about that when you think about the game we saw last night—an exhausted Raptors team playing uncharacteristically sloppy ball against a Mavericks team that still hasn’t really clicked. Think of that when you think of Pascal walking the ball up instead of sprinting.

Yet more evidence that the only people who really benefit from the current schedule are ownership. The fans don’t. Players can’t argue against the 82-game schedule because it would cut into their bottom line. Still, that there is such a thing as a “schedule loss” is a travesty.

So what’s the answer?

The answer is to support labour.

Support a shorter schedule.

Support a higher share of BRI (profits) for players and a lower share (or none) for owners.

Support load management.

Do it for the players.

Do it for yourself.

See AD and LeBron using their power to get what they wanted from the Pelicans and Lakers, see Kawhi and PG doing the same to the Clippers and Thunder.

Now think about who you can organize with to get what you want.

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