In the first volume of Capital, Karl Marx laid out his expansion on ideas pioneered by Adam Smith and David Riccardo called the Labor Theory of Value. At its most basic, it argues that things gain worth when people devote themselves to transforming them, levying time and energy against, say, a few pieces of wood to craft them into, say, a chair.
Marx contends that a non-laboring upper class siphoning off a portion of that value for themselves characterizes capitalism. In the abstract, the goal of that class (“the bourgeoisie,” “management” or “ownership”) is to take as much of it from laborers as possible. At hte same time, it gives back the minimum required to keep laborers working. Since the workers generated that value themselves, Marx considered this transaction theft.
His answer to this conflict was simple. If workers want to rectify this theft of labor, they have to seize the system for themselves. And if they didn’t supplant capitalism with a system where workers control resources, eventually it would lead to disaster.
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight,” Marx and Frederich Engles wrote in The Communist Manifesto. “A fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
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Despite what a million conservative pundits say, professional athletes are working class. Their money comes from their labor: the act of performing sports. The value of something like professional basketball is a product of how basketball players transform their bodies into fine-tuned machines that can blatantly defy laws of God and nature. More importantly, the money they actually take home is just a portion of the money they actually generate. Players receive the smallest possible portion ownership can whittle off while still retaining their services. Owners also have to compensate the work of marketers, stadium personnel and the coaching staff. That also builds up the whole enterprise. The common denominator continues to be the rich dudes profiting the most while not actually doing any of the labor.
There is no group of workers in American sports who have suffered more at the hands of ownership than the New York Knicks. There is no owner who has stolen more from those below him than James Dolan.
NBA players have set themselves apart as some of the most (but for sure not the most) politically active professional athletes in the country over the last decade. LeBron James’ More Than A Vote campaign is part of a long tradition of basketball stars leveraging their platform to spark change. From Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Magic Johnson, we’ve seen athletes in the NBA use their platforms to make statements. But, while basketball players over the past decade have thrown money and rhetoric towards activism, it generally hasn’t taken the form of radical labor action.
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Even the 2020 wildcat strike, which built a promising core of solidarity among the league’s younger generation, was kneecapped in its infancy by a LeBron-led contingent content to bargain away their leverage on the nebulous grounds of “building a platform.” Social justice and material action don’t have to be mutually exclusive. However, in this instance, the league traded the momentum for police reform for league-branded, feel-good messaging.
The best proof that the strike could have eeked something substantial out of ownership is what happened to Donald Sterling in 2014. The league jettisoned then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers after video surfaced of him telling his mistress not to bring Black people to Clippers games. NBA players were ready to stop playing if commissioner Adam Silver didn’t ban Sterling from the league. Faced with that pressure, management conceded, and dumped Sterling on his ass. It may have actually been the best thing to happen to the Clippers. That’s when you consider how much money new owner, Steve Ballmer, is willing to pump into the team.
The Sterling case is obviously extreme, since it involved the kind of cartoonish racism nobody can pretend to ignore. Still, it contains a powerful lesson: a united team of workers, with their union behind them in solidarity, can oust a bad owner.
The James Dolan situation:
You can make a social case for firing James Dolan into the sun. He might not be a racist, but Jesus, does not saying anything about the George Floyd shooting until you get dragged through the mantle seem like a big dog whistle. If you believe Charles Oakley, (you should, he’s very cool) Dolan’s a megalomaniacal control freak. He’s ticking towards the day when even the owners won’t be able to maintain omertà on just how much he sucks. There’s also the time Dolan made Carmelo Anthony, a grown man who made him millions of dollars, apologize to a fan who heckled him. Oh, and I couldn’t forget the time when Dolan wrote a song about Harvey Weinstein. He even played it with his shitty band.
So, by almost any source you can find, James Dolan is a spoiled whiny rich boy. But, the case for a player’s revolt only gels when you take a more materialist approach. This is because Dolan’s disastrous approach to owning a basketball team puts him in the unique situation of being the NBA’s only owner who does not just steal surplus value from his workers, but also wilts their value through the sheer toxicity of his aura.
All owners hold back as much pay as they can. But only Dolan is such a bad owner that it costs his players money beyond that.
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Let’s circle back to Carmelo Anthony. Before JD and the Straight Shot asked him to play kazoo, the team kept the start forward at the small forward position because Dolan wanted him to play alongside Amar’e Stoudamire for the image boost it would give the Knicks. To be fair, Dolan and Anthony were apparently on the same page here. But ownership and the front office flagrantly disregarded the far more effective strategy of Anthony playing as a stretch forward. When injuries limited Stoudamire’s 2012-13 campaign, the coaches got their way and it produced stellar results. Anthony led the league in scoring that year, and the team had its first postseason series victory since 2000.
If ‘Melo was better as a stretch forward, and the Knicks were better for it, then playing him there would’ve boosted both his stats and the team’s performance. Players who lead playoff teams get paid more, both in bonuses and in the extra market value they can command as members of successful squads. It’s possible Anthony’s 2012-13 was an aberration. But if he was used in his most productive role season after season, he could have commanded a max contract on top of the massive advance he got when he resigned with the team in 2014. His performance playing the four would have also given Anthony extra leverage if he tested the waters of free agency.
If that’s how the Dolan debuff affects their most noteworthy player of the last decade, imagine what it did for the role players and borderline-league guys further down the rotation. Imagine what it did to the career value of the guys Dolan decided needed Isiah Thomas to lead them.
This stuff adds up. James Dolan’s 20-year hellcycle turned one of basketball’s most storied and prominent teams into a goddamn meme. It’s part of why R.J. Barrett got left off the All-Rookie team despite these stats. It’s also part of why Kristaps Porzingis asked for a trade out of New York. A team that plays in Madison Square Garden should have to fight off free agents wanting to hop on the ship. But year after year, it’s the other way around. Game-changing free agents take one look at this shit show and know they’ll be better off on shore.
Knick fans have come to accept that Dolan is their reality, but it does not have to be like this. Per Article II of the NBA Constitution, an owner can be removed from the league in two ways. They can resign, or they can be ousted if they violate any of the probations laid out in Section 13. There’s an argument to be made that Dolan, being as bad an owner as he is, has actually violated his contractual obligations to the players. This would be grounds for a vote to boot him from the NBA the same as Sterling. But, that’s 100 percent a pipe dream (compared to this article’s resting 95-percent-pipe-dream level). So, all that’s left is to force a resignation.
The formula for that is simple. Every player on the Knicks needs to refuse to play until Dolan sells the team. The NBPA then has to back them unequivocally. There really is an argument to boot him because he’s been so blatantly disrespectful to players, and making the materialist contention that his presence in the team is hurting everybody’s wallet is the way to go here.
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That opens up an entire new genre of labor action, from JD and the Straight Shot to the Marvin Gaye of social activism the players have previously rallied behind. They put in the work that makes this league valuable. So, they deserve to agitate for better conditions by every possible angle and argument. A union as unified as it was for Sterling, ready to strike league wide for the cause, could force the owners’ hands with enough determination.
This is likely the furthest any one action could push labor relations in the NBA. But it could lay the ground to go much, much further in the future. Union actions like strikes and collective bargaining are valuable on their own for the benefits they can bring. But from a broader perspective, they also serve to tilt the scales of power from management to the workers. In a fully socialist system, the former becomes subservient to the later, rather than the other way around.
And between worker collectives like Mondragon, and even collectively-owned sports teams like Real Madrid, the world is full of examples of business ventures being successful when management becomes a more democratic venture. Imagine if players and staff members could elect team presidents. Imagine if they could jettison those presidents the moment they lost the confidence of their coworkers. It could all start here, it could all start with the Knicks.
All Dolan would get out of the arrangement is billions of dollars for selling a brand he inherited from his father like a fiefdom. Oh, the horror.