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Sunday, May 18, 2014

My Take On the "Ownership" of Professional Athletes: Basketball vs Golf

I've been watching the Donald Sterling debacle unfold on national television over the past two weeks with amazement and with deep sorrow.  The Sterling-Clippers mess is, in many ways, the natural and logical culmination of the commoditization of basketball and basketball players, and could as easily have popped up in the pro football and pro baseball arenas.

April 27, 2014. LA Clippers protesting Donald Sterling's
racist rant by wearing their shirts inside-out, hiding
Clippers logo and name.
The tragic subtexts in the Sterling-Clippers scandal are neither subtle nor symbolic: How, in the 21st Century, in an enlightened and civilized society, can an 80-year old oligarch "own" a group of athletes collectively valued at something north of $500 million?

Didn't we settle the legality of one person owning another in this society some time ago?  What's the textual difference between owning a gang of plantation workers and owning a gang of men who toss balls around for the entertainment of others?

But equally tragic is the team's response to the situation.  Rather than boycotting games, refusing to play so long as Sterling remains in control, and smashing the chains that make them complicit in their own economic enslavement, they turned their shirts inside out and played on.

And despite the NBA's public commitment to punish Donald Sterling for his egregious verbal misconduct, the lawyers are involved and the very public battle between Sterling, Inc. and the NBA is likely to continue, while the guys who actually do the work of putting the ball in the hoop try to keep their very large paychecks coming.

Mommas, help your babies grow up to be golfers.

Pro golf teams are ephemeral and ownership comes in the form of corporate -- and occasionally, as in the case of international Olympic competition, societal -- sponsorship.  But sponsorship is inherently different from ownership.

May 4, 2014. Stacy Lewis greets fans at the North Texas
LPGA Shootout, Las Colinas Golf Club.  Photo Credit:
Tom Pennington/Getty Images.
Pro golfers are perpetual free agents and while their paychecks, on average, don't match the money deals worked out with basketball, football and baseball's mega stars, there's much to be said for the spiritual independence pro golfers enjoy as they go about the business of getting their little balls from the tee to the cup.

There's another dimension to professional golf that's utterly lacking in pro basketball and football: social responsibility and social conscience.  While Sterling flails and the NBA frowns and Anderson Cooper interrogates, the pro golfers on the LPGA have cut an amazing deal with one of the Association's major corporate sponsors, CME Group.  For every eagle made during Saturday and Sunday rounds at LPGA events this year, CME Group is donating $1000 to the Wounded Warriors Project.  That deal has resulted in $100K flowing into the Wounded Warriors Project coffers so far this year.

And then there's the LPGA Founder's Cup purse -- players agreeing going into the event to donate 50% of the purse to the LPGA Girls Golf program and 50% to a charity of their choosing.  Getting the plan worked out involved some delicate negotiations with Tour players, who were concerned that the philanthropic giving plan was a bit thin.  They wanted greater control over the amounts and the charities that would benefit!

Pro golf has a long and rich history with philanthropy and while there are arguments about whether or not the actual amounts of money golf raises for charities are accurately reported, there's no debate about who's benefitting from this arrangement.

Organized philanthropy, however, is only one dimension of golf's exercise of social conscience and social responsibility.  From First Tee to Girls Golf to the new Drive, Chip & Putt initiative, golf's active engagement with young golfers is what makes the sport unique in the sometimes ethically challenged world of professional athletics.

Let's Play Golf!