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What are young athletes owed?

These young stars have earned the right to cash whatever check they can get their hands on. The rest will sort itself out in due time.

Jordan Goldstein Montreal QC

With Toronto Maple Leaf forward Mitch Marner signing a 6 year 65+ million dollar contract last weekend, the latest saga involving a young player demanding a market rate, or higher, for their services is over. But across the NHL many young RFAs, free agents with a restricted ability to sign a new contract, are still holding out hoping to extract the most money possible.

Before Marner signed his deal, Toronto fans were lining up to demonize the locally born 22-year-old winger. How dare he handcuff an already salary cap tight team! How dare he ask for more than what many believe to be his market rate! How dare he not be a team player!? How dare he not wait his turn, just sign a small deal and then cash in later!? These questions are especially intense for young professional athletes.

Historically, rookies and younger players had to wait their turn both for playing time and for payment. After you struggle, go through the school of hard knocks, then and only then can you cash out or demand prime playing time. But things are changing in the world of sports. In baseball, many of the best players, like Ronald Acuna Jr., are being paid close to the league minimum while piling up MVP calibre numbers. Similar to Marner, Acuna Jr. recently signed a massive 8 year 100 Million dollar extension signalling the end of his bargain days for the Atlanta Braves. Importantly, Acuna Jr. spent the least amount of service time in baseball history before hitting the jackpot. So what should we think about young stars getting paid the most?

On one hand, they best deserve to be paid what they are worth. Professional sports are a business, full stop. Why should it matter if you’ve played one year or 10 years? Contracts are given based on performance and potential. A top ten player should command a top ten salary. There are some complications, including contract length, a player’s health, a team’s position, and the salary structures of the leagues (ie. Salary Cap). But regardless, if your time for a contract is now, you have to take it. The future of an athlete is tenuous at best. Injury can eliminate a career in a second. Consistent performance over the years is difficult to achieve. As an independent contractor, players have to take advantage of their negotiating position and should not apologize for trying to maximize what they’ve worked their whole lives to achieve.

Historically, players have held limited ability to negotiate the best deals available. In baseball, Curt Flood sued the MLB over the reserve clause, meaning players were literal property of team and could not openly negotiate with other teams when their contracts ended. Flood refused a trade in 1969, took his case to the Supreme Court, lost, but ultimately brought about the emergence of player free agency.

In hockey, Ted Lindsay sought similar protections and rights for players. The NHL held a similar reserve clause and Lindsay established the NHL Players Association to ensure similar levels of economic security that other leagues had. Like Flood, Lindsay suffered at the hands of the owners, being shipped in 1957 from Detroit, a powerhouse, to Chicago the league laughing stock. The same fate befell Doug Harvey, star defenceman in Montreal, who helped Lindsay. For his involvement, he was sent packing to the New York Rangers. Both men had their reputations damaged by lies. When I see Mitch Marner grabbing all he can get, or Acuna Jr. setting history, it’s a culmination of decades of players fighting for their share of the pie. Young stars are simply reaping the benefits of these past labour leaders.

But I understand the frustration as well. Historically sports have been used as a training ground for boys and young men. In all cultures, there are ceremonies and rituals that symbolize the transition from childhood and youth to adulthood. For many societies, since men were hunters and protectors, these particular rites often included a physical component.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson argued that violent and frightening rituals, specifically for hunter gatherer societies, were paramount in this initiation and transformation. The basic idea, suffer as we have and you will too become fully responsible in this society. At some level, the young stars in pro sports are skipping their trial, their years of initiation, into the brotherhood of professional sports. In individual sports, this isn’t an issue and young players historically have been able to perform at the highest level. But for team sports, especially the large money making enterprises in North America, there is an established code and pecking order.  It’s understandable why some would simply ask young stars like Marner or Acuna Jr. to wait their turn.

Ultimately, while it’s difficult to argue against players being paid what they can negotiate, the definite future in sport, we can understand this moment as its own transition. One where the traditional hierarchy of a locker room, veterans lead and rookies stay silent, is falling by the wayside. In the past, even hot shot rookies had to learn their place, earn their respect, and only when they had gone through the same initiation rites as the other veterans, began to receive that type of respect in the locker room and on their paycheck.

But a new generation, not content with waiting, demands their dues now. I don’t think this is necessarily similar to other cultural arguments suggesting a lack of traditional masculinity, or the insistence of millennials to get what they feel they deserve as opposed to receiving what they’ve actually earned. There are some elements no doubt, but in the realm of sports, you are only as good as your last game. These young stars have earned the right to cash whatever check they can get their hands on. The rest will sort itself out in due time.

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