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Posted: Wednesday January 06, 1999 12:32 PM
Despite the fact that the NBA lockout has been settled, nothing really ever changes in the labor disputes that burden American team sport. Next time it will be football again, or baseball or hockey. Round and round: baseball is far worse off today, facing the same problems, as it was when it forfeited a World Series four years ago.
All these drastic sports work stoppages are characterized in sameness, without substantive issues. When players and owners first clashed, back in the '60s, observers were almost obliged to take sides on the matter of free agency. It was serious stuff. But now, it's just a question of scuffling over the ledger. Oh, such weighty matters! Who really cares whether fifth-year players, making more than $8.5 million a year, can be signed for an option season so long as management promises to rent the Concorde to fly these players to games and to hire personal masseuses and astrologers? Whatever.
Oh, to be sure, the issues matter in the sense that precisely what is decided now can cost you, a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves -- or the Colorado Rockies or the Edmonton Oilers -- your star player after the 2001 season, but, still, it's all too arcane and unrealistic for us to care about. It's rather like, I suppose, when Henry VIII was arguing with Pope Clement about whether or not his marriage to Catherine of Aragon could be annulled. The decision would determine how a whole nation worshipped, but who could get involved in the posturing and the silly, self-centered topics that determined the fates?
Of course no sensible person has paid attention to the NBA negotiations.
I purposely used the analogy to Henry VIII for a reason other than unmitigated facetiousness. A few years ago we were told that the End of History had arrived. Now there's a theory afoot that the 21st-century capitalistic world will, in fact, be a flashback of history to the middle ages, when nationalism was deficient in the Europe that was Christendom, while little local fiefdoms thrived.
It's an interesting postulate, and what makes it especially fascinating for our purposes is how American sport has, essentially, already presaged that possibility -- going backwards from being a highly centralized nation-type organism to the loose free-wheeling medieval model that struggles today. The commissioners, who used to be heads of state, are barely more than committee chairmen now, with no authority whatsoever over the players -- the very essence of the games. Baseball has proved you don't even need anyone to preside.
The players themselves are knights errant, roaming the countryside, lances for hire -- occasionally banding together to crusade against the heathen Saracen ... translated from the olde English as "salary cap." Whereas the holy Catholic church was the one umbrella agent in the middle ages, television fills that purpose these days. Without its blessing, as the women's American Basketball League just found out, you are excommunicated.
And, as in the middle ages, there's never any progress, and no one dares look beyond the next forest to the common good beyond.
If sport really is an emerging paradigm for our whole 21st-century society, God help us all.
These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.
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