Publish date:

No Exit

Behold, the unhappy sports marriage

THERE IS ONE hard-and-fast rule to keep in mind about the relationship between management and labor in professional sports: Nobody makes anyone do anything. As C.J. Cregg once said about political difficulties on The West Wing, "There are no victims, just volunteers."

Which is why it's interesting to observe what happens when the escape mechanisms break down and a player who probably doesn't want to be with a team ends up stuck on a team that doesn't want him.

The most prominent example these days is the very strange situation involving 10-time All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony. Given their druthers, the Knicks, headed toward a fourth straight finish outside the postseason, would rather be rid of Anthony, having reportedly tried to trade him already this season. Given his druthers, Melo likely would prefer to leave New York's bleak present behind. Unfortunately, team and player are bound by a contract that contains a no-trade clause and pays Anthony, 32, north of $26 million next year, with a player option worth almost $28 million for 2018--19.

The NBA trade deadline arrived last week, and general managers looked at that deal and either collapsed in laughter or hurled themselves out the window before the temptation to add a 23.5-points-per-game scorer got too great. And so here the Knicks and their best player remain, locked in a relationship that neither side appears to be enjoying very much.

There are precedents, of course. The Yankees and Alex Rodriguez had to endure each other for years before A-Rod was finally released last August. The Pirates offered 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen around during December's winter meetings only to have nobody take them up on it, so McCutchen is, at the moment, the Pittsburgh rightfielder. In the NFL, the Redskins bumped one-time franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III all the way to scout-team defensive back in 2015 before they could cut him loose.

With the advent of free agency four decades ago came all the risks inherent in any marketplace. Since then, however, the management side of affairs has worked assiduously to minimize its downside by tampering with the market mechanisms. The most obvious strategy was the collusion engaged in by the baseball owners in the late 1980s. On the labor side, a lot of the risk is eliminated by the existence—except in the NFL—of guaranteed contracts. At the same time, the new millions guaranteed by those contracts became another way for the public to measure performance and, more specifically, failure. It commodified human beings in a new way through the familiar metric of cash.

The ability of players to determine their own fate and the grudging acceptance by management of that reality has unquestionably been a boon to every league in every sport. But the new dynamic laid its own traps. Each side has fought to create a system that suited its own needs. Players could move more freely, which caused teams to pay more freely, and that was a good thing no matter how management propaganda tried to spin it. But there also arose a kind of dead-end business dynamic for which there was no solution: to wit, the current dilemma with the Knicks and Anthony. It's as though both team and player are stuck in a maze with no real way out.

This leaves everybody twisting in the winds that blow through the Court of Public Opinion, which, in my experience, has no windows and no walls and is stirred by great gusts of hot air. The Knicks get lambasted because of the mismanagement that has plagued the team for years. Anthony gets lambasted because, rather than team president Phil Jackson or owner James Dolan, he is the living, jump-shooting symbol of that mismanagement. But nobody forced anybody to do anything, and there are no victims here, just volunteers.

It's interesting to observe when a player who doesn't want to be with a team gets stuck on a team that doesn't want him.