In light of the sports shutdown of the last few weeks, the world of athletics has once again shown how it is both connected to our larger society as a whole and acts as a microcosm of it. As low-income workers struggle with the transition to working at home, employees who fill similar roles in sports are concurrently suffering through tough times, and it’s only going to get worse as the state of emergency escalates.
Now, think about all of the so-called “unskilled” labor that goes into making our sports landscape possible: ushers and vendors who allow games to happen, maintenance workers who keep facilities clean and healthy for athletes to work in, security officers who keep team members and fans safe during events. All of these people are out of work right now.
Some sports media members realized shortly after the sports shutdown that these workers will have little to no ability to make ends meet now that their primary revenue stream has gone dry. Accordingly, these people made their voices heard, specifically by calling on team owners to guarantee workers’ pay with the idea that rich ownership could afford to take this step.
It became a dominant story in a sports media cycle in need of topics to discuss in the absence of games. In the early days of self-quarantine, multiple players such as Kevin Love, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson announced they would donate money to workers in their respective stadiums while owners, with a few exceptions, were slow to make any such promises.
Williamson’s case in particular generated headlines because, up to that point, team ownership hadn’t done anything. (Team owner Gayle Benson has since donated $1 million to a fund that will assist workers at the Pelicans’ Smoothie King Center as well as those impacted by the virus in the greater New Orleans community.)
The situation came to a head when Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris announced a plan to reduce employee salaries by 20% due to financial losses before backtracking and apologizing in the face of massive public backlash.
Sports media, which was already an incredible forum for opinionated commentary when focusing on trivial topics, was the perfect space for this story to play out, and the differing opinions of two of the analysts I respect most made it clear to me that the topic of ownership paying employees isn’t as cut and dry as some might think.
First was Rachel Nichols, host of ESPN’s “The Jump” and someone who I believe sees the world more clearly than just about everyone else. She joined coworker Zach Lowe’s podcast March 19, about a week after the NBA season was suspended, to call out NBA owners for not immediately guaranteeing employees’ salaries and fellow media members for their coverage.
“I was surprised, some of our colleagues who were very quick to defend the NBA owners — ‘Give them a month to get a plan together’ or that kind of thing,’” she said. “When you are a billionaire, literally, and half of NBA owners are billionaires, it is a penny out of your pocket to [commit] … that you’re going to pay out hourly workers for the last 20 games of the season. It is nothing.”
I agree with Nichols that it should be a no-brainer for owners to cover their employees’ salaries; as she said, it’s not really a huge hit for most of them, even considering that they’re losing money right now. But the Ringer’s Ryen Russillo, another person that I respect for taking a fair viewpoint of things (even when his opinions might not be popularly accepted) brought up the fact that the coronavirus is an extraordinary problem and that it’s hard to blame owners for not acting immediately when they have no warning and no precedent to work with.
“I said it immediately, I’m like ‘Man, is there any way we can give these guys more than a day?’” Russillo said on a March 16 episode of the Bill Simmons podcast. “And guess what? Almost everybody is stepping up … So far it seems like everybody’s going to be taken care of.”
When two people as smart as Nichols and Russillo disagree so vehemently, that tells me we’re working with a complicated situation. I think they’re both right; it’s very easy for owners to cover their employees’ pay, but I’d expect them to think everything through and come up with a well-thought-out plan before promising anything (although this doesn’t apply to the 76ers, who made a stupid, premature announcement and then went back on it because they were getting ripped to shreds).
It’s important to remember that we’re dealing with something the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1918 flu pandemic. Even the people in charge have no idea what they’re dealing with because it seems to change every day.
That doesn’t excuse the actions of those who downplayed the outbreak, consistently made wrong decisions, racialized the pandemic’s name and tried to use it to get themselves re-elected (guess who that’s referring to); but what it does mean is that we have to find a way to continue holding people accountable without holding them to an impossible standard.
Aidan Berg is a junior writing about sports. He is also a features editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, “Berg is the Word,” runs every other Monday.