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UNDERPAID, UNDERVALUED: Will more ‘union ball’ up our collective game?

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“Trevor Kelley got Aaron Judge out in September,” I said as my wife and I watched Judge blast a home run in game two of the Yankees vs. Astros series. My wife and I watched Trevor pitch since he and our son played together at Winter Park Little League, Murray Middle School  and Ashley High School.

“Seriously?” my wife said. “I thought the Red Sox sent him back to the minors in July.”

“They did,” I said, “but he was killing it in Triple A. They called him in September. One of the Major League stories he’ll get to tell is he pitched a scoreless inning against the heart of the Yankees order. I hope he’ll have a lot more Major League stories to tell.”

I crunched a pretzel.

“But I never thought Trevor would grow up to be a union guy.”

“He’s a pitcher,” my wife said.

“And a good one,” I confirmed. “Now he’s in the Major League Baseball’s Players Association. He can thank free-agent pioneer Curt Flood and the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement for a hefty raise to the major league minimum. Thanks to ‘union ball,’ Trevor will be able to stay home with his newborn this winter and prepare himself for spring training, not work construction.”

The inning ended. One of the commentators speculated on a player’s value in the off-season free-agent market.

“Why do the announcers always talk about the free-agent market?” my wife asked. “I want to watch the game.”

“Unions. Before unions there was no free agency; players were basically indentured servants.” 

Many of us mistakenly believe anyone we see on-screen is making millions. We see a local actor in a 7-UP commercial or episode of “Swamp Thing” and figure he’s part of the Hollywood elite (you know, like all working actors). We blast ballplayers as overpaid prima donnas. The facts are different.

Few college baseball players get full scholarships. During a recruiting trip to a division-one school with my son Patrick (current Wilmington filmmaker, Trevor’s former teammate and a fine pitcher himself), the college coach explained he had 11 scholarships to spread among the team’s 30 players. Few student athletes in any college sport get the Rolls Royce; most get the Honda. Unless you make it to the very top of the game in professional baseball, you’re still mostly riding the bus. Minor League ballplayers average $12,000 a year. In 2014 Major League Baseball was hit by a class-action lawsuit, alleging minor-league players received less than minimum wage for playing and were paid no overtime.

Fall is a busy time of year for fans of major “money” sports. Union workers in professional baseball, football, hockey and basketball are all in action to distract us from our mostly non-union day jobs. After an active offseason of free-agent swapping, it may seem like, partly because of unions, the NBA has turned into a glorified pickup league run by players. (“Who wants to play on LeBron’s team?” or “I want to play in Brooklyn.”)  However, it’s fine with me if unions advocate for better working conditions and profit-sharing, spearhead brain-injury awareness, and demand health coverage and pensions for NFL players, negotiate major-league minimums, and in many sports work with “luxury taxes” and “salary caps.”    

It is disheartening that labor-union membership has plummeted to historic lows. We listen to CEOs lambast a “wealth tax” and “salary cap,” while tuning in to major sports that prosper using both strategies. We elect politicians that slander teachers and nurses union leaders as “thugs,” yet Steph Curry’s and LeBron James’ jerseys fly off the shelves. (Both these “thugs” have held leadership positions in the NBA Players Association.)

It doesn’t bother me that LeBron makes a gazillion dollars or Trevor Kelley might make a few million someday soon. What bothers me is seeing one of Trevor’s Ashley High School teachers working at Harris Teeter because he or she can’t raise a family on a teacher’s salary.

Maybe it’s not that our sports figures and other entertainment-industry faces we see briefly on-screen are overpaid. Maybe it’s that our Ashley teacher is underpaid, along with nurses, firefighters, policemen and other more essential occupations.

Maybe we all are undervalued. Maybe a little more “union ball” would up our collective game.

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