Strange Days, Indeed

by July 23, 2008

If you live, as I do, in the United States, or even if you are only vaguely aware of the existence of the United States, you might have heard that things here are not as good as they should be, or have been in recent years. I’m not going to get into a lot of detail, but it basically comes down to gravity (“What goes up…”), the passage of time (“All good things…”) and us having a mentally retarded president (Too many quotes to list, but do check the link.)

Anyway, thanks largely to the reasons listed above, and some others that are out of our hands, the American economy is less vigorous than many would like. When people in America talk about this — which a lot of them do, a lot — they usually talk about “the credit crisis” and “the mortgage crisis” and “layoffs” and “the price of oil,” none of which I really understand; from what I remember of my freshman year in college, economics is hard. But, occasionally, we are blessed with people who make the reality of our sh*tty economy a little easier to understand.

People like… rappers! They like to get paid in Euros — and not just regular Euros, but the plural ones, which are apparently worth more. From a picture I saw, Euros are funny looking and probably not actually real “money,” yet rappers seem to think they’re worth twice as much as actual dollars. That’s stupid, but then, so are most rappers.

Well, now basketball players are stupid too. Especially ones who went to Stanford.

I kid, obviously, except for the part about most rappers. I definitely kid about Josh Childress, by all accounts a smart (did I mention Stanford?) and likable dude who’s also a pretty good basketball player. Good enough, it seems, to be the highest-paid player in Europe. He’s probably somewhere around the 74th best player in the NBA (I’m not into making lists ranking NBA players, but if I were, that’s where I’d put him), and likely would’ve been paid as such: Not a top-tier, long-term, max-contract guy, but a well-paid NBA regular.

Do you follow soccer? You should. It’s entertaining — and again, I mean following it, not just watching it. The game is great, but the drama that surrounds the game, especially in Europe, is next-level absurdulous. (Just made that word up. Well, almost. It gets seven hits on Google. Now it’ll get eight.) Among the biggest stories of the international offseason (roughly the same as basketball’s, also known as “summertime”) is the “transfer saga” of Cristiano Ronaldo. What can I tell you about Cristiano? He’s really pretty, and he’s even prettier when he’s working with the ball.

Congratulations on just having read the most homoerotic sentence I’ve ever written.

Anyway, Cristiano plays for Manchester United, the best team in the richest league (England’s Premier League) in the world. But being pretty, and also Portuguese, and also a diva and shallow as a wading pool, he’s tempted greatly by the idea of playing for Real Madrid, a historically great diva of a team in (duh?) Spain. This came up last summer, which is the main reason Manchester United signed him to a 5-year contract extension worth about $250,000 a week.

This summer, he’s at it again, flirting with Real Madrid and getting lots of attention in return. Manchester United, understandably, is not happy about this. They just last year signed this guy to a long-term extension worth a relatively insane amount of money, and oh by the way, they also won the Premier League and the Champions League, a European-wide tournament that includes pretty much all the best clubs in the world. Meaning, at the moment, Manchester United is the best team in all of Europe (and thus the world). So while Cristiano might theoretically leave to get a raise, it would only be a raise from stupendously rich to “seriously, knock it off already” rich, and he absolutely would not be going to a team that might give him a better chance of winning, because the team he’s on just won everything. The only reasons he’d have to justify breaking out of a lucrative contract he’d willingly signed a year earlier would be weather (if you’ve ever been to Manchester, you can’t blame him for that) and greed.

Also, the head of FIFA, the international football association, reacted to this situation by saying that Ronaldo — the guy who willingly signed that long-term, gazillion-dollar contract extension to an existing paper-stacking contract he’d already willingly signed — is a “modern-day slave.”

I told you this stuff was awesome.

This is the global sporting reality. If you want to be a player in global sports, you go in knowing that salary caps don’t exist, international borders are generally meaningless, and the highest bidder pretty much always wins. This has long been the reality in soccer, a reality in which teams in England and Italy and Spain try to poach each other’s best players, hire coaches from each other’s countries, and increasingly — for the countries who don’t actually have many great players but do have money to burn—buy each other’s teams. And it’s a reality that leads to a handful of teams — less than a dozen, really — with an inordinate amount of the money and any real chance at consistently winning championships. Most everyone who’s not a fan of that top handful of teams would agree this reality is not ideal — or “fair,” if you like that word — and that it goes against the purity of competition and is not in the game’s best interest. But then, f*ck those people, this is free-market capitalism! And people thought Europe was full of socialists! Our sports are the ones with salary caps, revenue sharing, and drafts built on giving the bad teams a chance to catch the good ones—if that doesn’t scream communism, what does?

Which brings me back to Josh Childress (and Brandon Jennings, to a lesser extent), and the NBA. If you follow the NBA, you have to admire the way the League combines such conflicting economic outlooks. Within the League, it’s all about balance and sharing and equity. A luxury tax? You’re actually taxing people for the very act of spending more money? Is David Stern actually Karl Marx in disguise? No, of course not—he’s just looking out for the best interests of all the League’s owners by trying to keep them from falling victim to their own worst tendencies. If dude ran the credit card and mortgage industries, we’d have no problems at all.

Where the ruthless capitalism comes in is the rest of the world: International preseason games, hints of European expansion, charity work in Africa, drooling all over China and its 800,000,500,000,000,032 Registered NBA Fans™. Global expansion, taking The Brand to the far reaches of the globe — that‘s the real capitalist NBA, all of it based on the largely undiscussed assumption that because “we” invented the game and “we” have the best league and “we” have the best players, “we” will continue to set the terms of the game’s growth, and “we” will be the ones to control it and profit from it.

The emerging problem has nothing to do with the fact that American teams haven’t been able to win an international basketball tournament in a few years. Just the opposite, in fact: For all the talk about how recent Olympic and World Championship results have spelled doom for U.S. hoops dominance, they’ve been great for the NBA — most of the best players from those teams simply come to the NBA, if they’re not here already, and their fame (and the NBA’s marketing reach) is broader because of it. No, the problem is, we don’t have the best money anymore.

My point here isn’t really about Brandon Jennings, whose decision had much more to do with NBA-sanctioned NCAA hypocrisy (Note: I may have strong feelings on this subject) than with the currency exchange rate. (Although I’m pretty sure I know which column “fat stacks of Euros” was placed under when Brandon drew up his list of “Pros and Cons of Living In Europe for the Next Year or Two.” Maybe this whole thing is Weezy’s fault…) No, this is about Josh Childress, a very good NBA player who easily — and I mean that literally; it would’ve been the familiar, conventional, easy option — could’ve stayed with the Hawks and made a pretty good stack of money and lived relatively happily ever after. But he didn’t. Instead, he acted within the parameters of what his contract and the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allowed and took the better offer. The Hawks probably could’ve tried harder to stop him, but apparently they did not. As it stands, they’ve apparently lost him for nothing.

To which I say, welcome to the global economy, Commissioner!

The metaphor is too easy, or maybe it’s not a metaphor as much as it is an example, but all of this should look pretty familiar to us Americans — another reminder (and they sure do keep adding up) that we don’t run sh*t the way we used to. Power, wealth and privilege are dangerous things to get used to. Just as the U.S. spent most of the last half century dictating the global economy, the NBA under Stern has thrived by controlling the highest level of worldwide basketball and nearly all of its best players. Foreign players generally weren’t good enough to play in the NBA — until they were, in which case, they had to come to the NBA to prove themselves, get famous, and make money. And so they have.

But now, as stated, our money is no longer the greenest, and those foreign players can do quite well for themselves playing at home. That’s not so surprising, nor is it too terribly worrying for the suits in NYC. But Josh Childress? A kid from the L.A. suburbs who had a great college career and, at 25, was in the midst of a solid NBA run that figured to last 10 years? Why would someone like Josh Childress go play ball in Greece?

Because of “a three-year contract with Olympiakos of Greece that is worth far more than the $20 million initially reported.”

Because “the Hawks offered Childress a five-year deal with a starting salary in excess of the mid-level exception of $5.5 million… but Childress spurned the Hawks’ $33 million offer for a more lucrative deal with Olympiakos.

Because “with no salary cap for European teams, Olympiakos could offer whatever they wanted to entice Childress to leave the NBA. Childress will, however, have the option of opting out his contract with Olympiakos at the end of each season, which gives Childress maximum flexibility were he to choose to return to the NBA after this season.”

Because why the f*ck not?

Just as I don’t know and won’t predict whether Brandon’s middle-finger to the NCAA will really lead to a flood or even a trickle of similar moves from other top high school players, I don’t know and won’t predict how many mediocre or pretty good or even great NBA players might follow Josh’s lead. But a new path has been blazed, and if our money continues to lose half its value every time it crosses the Atlantic, and if Josh enjoys his time in Greece and tells his friends and former teammates, I’m guessing he won’t be the last. That’s the bad news for David Stern.

The good news? Unlike the NBA, where teams have to negotiate complicated trades of unequal parts and hope for the best, the ruthless capitalists who run soccer and basketball teams in Europe have to buy players if they want to tear them away from an existing contract — meaning, for example, that if Manchester United does sell Cristiano Ronaldo, they’ll probably make well over $100 million on the deal. Something to think about next time you and your boys sit down with the Players Association, Dave.

The other good news? European soccer has long been plagued by referee scandals, so in at least one aspect of this new global economy, your guys should fit right in.