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A League of Their Own

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The story about Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh and other basketball superstar free agents meeting to talk about their "plans" reminds me of much earlier conversations among professional baseball players in the Nineteenth Century. John Montgomery Ward, a Hall of Fame pitcher with the New York Giants, and his cohorts chafed under the collusion of National League owners. As members of the Brotherhood, baseball's first labor union, they tried without success to convince the owners to respond to their demands for fair treatment. With the financial support of "backers," these baseball all-stars decided to form a league of their own -- the Players League. More than 80% of professional ballplayers jumped to the new circuit which offered a splendid brand of baseball to the spectating public.

While no one would suggest that Lebron, D-Wade, et al., are mistreated, what if they decided to create a whole new league? After all, fans do not attend an NBA game to watch the owners dunk. They are drawn to the game because of the stars on the court. We are so used to the world of sports being divided into owners and players, however, that a player owned-and-operated enterprise sounds bizarre.

In the early days of American professional sports entertainment, players ran the show. In 1871, baseball players organized the first baseball league, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Boston won four of the first five pennants, led by pitching ace Albert Spalding. However, Spalding seemed more interested in the true national game of America -- making money -- and retired from the pitching box (there would be no pitcher's "mound" for more than a decade) to run his sporting equipment operation in Chicago. In early 1876, he joined William Hulbert, a Chicago coal merchant, in creating the first owner-run sports league, the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs. Previously, baseball had had no "owners," only players who split the receipts. All that changed one February night at the Grand Central Hotel in New York City.

The early years of the National League were ones of experimentation with the game and the organization of the league. By 1879, the League's owners -- they referred to themselves as "magnates" -- had had it with players who would "revolve" from one club to another during a season in order to pick up a few extra dollars. Arthur Soden, the Boston club owner, proposed a "reserve system" that would bind players to a particular club. Free agency was over, and player salaries immediately dropped 20 percent.

Montgomery Ward and fellow "ballists" launched a player-run rival circuit to free themselves from the control of this oligopoly of owners. Players, Ward wrote, had been treated "like cattle." The magnates, in turn, laughed at the prospect of a rival league run by untutored athletes. When the crowds came out to watch the Player League clubs and not the National League loyalists, the magnates stopped laughing. National League President Albert Spalding took control of the "war without quarter" against the Players League. Employing bribery, physical threats and coercion -- common business tactics of the era -- Spalding crushed the Players League, which folded after a single season.

Returning to our modern day superstars, should they consider a league of their own? Basketball would be the one sport where that might be a possibility. Team rosters are small. With a television contract and arena leases, it might work, but there are real impediments. First, Lebron's new Players League would have to contend with the fact that most players are bound by multi-year contracts, unlike the baseball players of the 1880s. They all contain standard provisions allowing for injunctive relief, and courts are likely to enforce their provisions against any players who defaulted on their contractual promises.

The ballplayers of the Nineteenth Century were paid a maximum of $2,000 a season. Lebron James makes that for a few seconds of play. All the basketball free agents work in a comparatively secure economic environment where owners cover most of the risks of financial failure.

And so the league-of-their-own option appears inadvisable for these tall-and-talented young men. Wherever they play, they will earn eight-figure salaries each season. Stocking a franchise, such as the New York Knicks, with two or more of these superstars appears to be a more viable option. Joining any franchise will make that team an instant contender. The free agents will have all the riches they could want. What they lack now are championship rings. Assuming they and their future teammates can play together -- remember, they have to share the basketball -- they could anoint the next champion. Make plans for the parade.

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