Lack of Power Does Not Prescribe a Lack of Action

This morning, Bethlehem Shoals posted a brief article laying out why he believes it’s important to support the players in this lockout. While I understand and respect his position, I ultimately disagree with it.

First off, I do agree strongly on 2 points:

  • The players have an absolute right to negotiate on their own behalf
  • They have much more personally at stake than any given fan does. 

I respect the players, their rights, and wish them the best deal they can get in a system that allows the healthy operation of the league. I also tend to be more sympathetic generally to the fans than owners, who instigated the entire lockout and have had a pattern of hardline behavior that has not helped the process much (I could go into a play by play list of each side’s unhelpful actions, but as a whole I’d say owners have 3 times the examples as players.)

What I strongly disagree with is the notion that because I sympathize with players, I should negate my own power as a fan.

While this is primarily a 2 party negotiation, there are actually closer to 5 parties with direct interest, if not more:

  1. The Owners who write checks
  2. The players who receive checks
  3. The agents who negotiate multiple players’ checks for a cut thereof
  4. Media companies who make money displaying the games, and pay the owners (who pay the players)
  5. Fans, consumers who supply the money to owners, or eyes to the media, that directly result in the money that goes to the owners (that goes to the players)

We’ve all heard of the machinations of agents trying to make their wishes known, and we haven’t heard nearly enough about the effects and influence of media interests throughout this process, but the fan- the basis upon which every other level of this economic industry is built upon- are regularly described as helpless bystanders in the entire process.  In Shoals’s case he makes the case that they explicitly shouldn’t be involved.

Politically, I agree with Shoals on the general importance of labor empowerment.  It’s a necessary check against the power imbalances between the employed and employers. This is why I agree completely with Shoals about players’ rights to negotiate their own interests.  The system depends upon them doing so, and doing so selfishly.

However, if this one high profile example of labor strife is an important symbol for the importance of labor empowerment over the course of society, it is also necessarily a symbol of the importance of consumer empowerment.  Again, I respect that players have more to personally lose than a source of entertainment, but when the season begins, it is funded by our consumer money. As such the consumer does have rights and a responsibility to ensure that the product it is paying for (in ever increasing amounts) is the product it desires.

To claim they should butt out because of the symbolic importance would be the same as saying consumers should continue banking at Bank of America despite galling increases in fees because it might put tellers out of work.  I respect those tellers, but I also respect the importance of consumer advocacy to protect against the predatory practices industries enact against consumers when the system refuses to consider them. 

I’m told daily about how powerless the fans are in this fight. We don’t get to vote so our opinion doesn’t matter. We’ll be back anyways.  We’re selfish for wanting to see games.  None of those negate the fact that fans are the most important party in this.  Every dollar in the system comes from us.  When Shoals says that imposing ourselves to desire more games empowers Owners because it allows them to do business, he’s wrong. The players get to do business at the exact same time owners do.  As soon as fan money starts flowing back in BOTH sides start making money again. This notion that taking up our own side supports one side over another is simply divisive rhetoric.

The loss of any dollar we refuse to give them will be split according to whatever the final agreement on BRI happens to be. By that exact same principle, any dollar we withhold from them can only hasten both sides to negotiate to their final position quicker- not in less favorable fashion. 

The consumer equivalent to employer lockout or employee strike is boycott. If you do not respect us, we will undercut your business model by withholding money from it. If fans withhold money from the NBA, signaling that effect of missed games on future revenues will be greater than they calculated, then the league has a direct and forceful reason to resolve this lockout sooner. The amount of money either side gains by holding out goes down and the advantages of both sides to settle goes up.

Will this happen? No. Fans are too conditioned to accept their own powerlessness and actually believe the argument that the powerless shouldn’t even attempt to empower themselves. 

So even though I’ll be attacked by fans for arguing on their behalf (if anybody read this), I’m going to have to ardently disagree: I matter. Fans matter. Consumers matter. And the fact that nobody CARES that I matter in no way affects the fact that I do.