So it's come to this, the blog as a teaching tool. I can honestly say I never thought this thing I used basically to complain about the team and game I love would ever be useful to anyone, let alone the basis for an assignment in a class I'm teaching. What has the world come to? Since this is where we are, there's precious little point in complaining about it. In fact, I think it makes more sense to just get to the damn point. This used to be a hockey and theory blog after all, so maybe it's time to return to my roots.
This is John Davidson, president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, apparently a hockey team in the NHL. JD is a really well respected hockey man, knowledgable, insightful, and consistently built winning teams basically everywhere he's been. JD has recently lost his mind and it follows a disturbing trend across the league when it comes to how to handle giving younger "star" players their second contracts.
Columbus has a kid on their roster named Ryan Johansen. He's 22 years old, huge and coming off of the best season of his career, scoring 33 goals and 63 points. He is also a "restricted" free agent (RFA), which means that the team straight up owns him for another few years and really has all the leverage. Johansen came into the league on a standard entry-level contract three seasons ago and was an average player for two of those seasons. He had his breakout season last year and the kid wants to get paid. The team thinks he's holding them hostage and his agent is inflating his value. As of today, Johansen has not signed any of the offers that have been made, and the latest rumour has him leaving for Russia and a tax-exempt payday. Can't say I blame him...
The Oilers have a similarly aged "star" player, a Defenceman named Justin Schultz who after two years in the league and a distinguished NCAA career was due for his own contract extension. As a group II RFA, the team basically has all of the power. The player cannot be signed to an offer sheet, nor can he take the team into a salary arbitration hearing (an ugly process that players and teams usually try to avoid at all costs). Instead of being completely obstinate, he took the best deal available to him and signed for a "ridiculous" $3.7 million dollar one year contract, a deal that the various talking heads around the league have routinely criticized as one of the worst deals of the summer, over-inflating his own perceived and real value and in effect driving up the going rate for similar group II RFA players in future years, which could be bad for the league.
Let's think about this for a moment–bad for the league? A league where billionaires routinely extract surplus value from the citizens of the cities they live in, get all the tax breaks possible and have been recording record profits in the wake of not one but two labour lockouts? From where I sit, this is a great thing for the players in so many ways, especially as it pertains to calling out the bosses on their crap, but it begs the question of why players get paid millions to play a game in the first place. That is not the question we will answer today, however. We have other business to attend to.
This brings us back to Marx and the often-misunderstood concept of commodity fetishism. In order to really understand it, we need to first define what Marx means by a "commodity" in the first place:
1) A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference. Neither are we here concerned to know how the object satisfies these wants, whether directly as means of subsistence, or indirectly as means of production (Capital Vol. 1 Ch. 1).
2) A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses... There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom (Capital ch. 4 sec. 1).
So what does it all mean? Marx basically takes the position that commodities aren't just things abut rather the things that emerge from labour. In Estranged Labour, Marx even goes so far as to suggest that people themselves become commodities by the labour that they produce, and the more that is produced, the less value workers have in the world they create–they themselves become the commodities and their value only exists through their work. "Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general" (ECF 1844).
In the context of our players and their contracts, they work for their wages, no matter how high or outrageous they seem, but they become constructed and expressed not as people but rather as the outcome of their labour. We speak of players as assets, discuss them in terms of cap hits and potential waiver wire acquisitions for our own enjoyment. And yet when one of these players actually tries to maximize their own value at the one point early in their careers (knowing that they might be one injury away from never playing again, let alone walking–the revolutionary act of asking for a raise! Shocking!), we are very quick to demonize the players for being greedy, for trying to extort the team. This feels like the very essence of what Marx called commodity fetishism.
So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism, which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (Capital ch. 4).
An article came out today on another Oilers blog that takes this issue on in a very different way, but the author frames the issue rather well from the perspective of friendliness to the team:
The following breaks down how team-friendly each stage of the career of a first overall pick (or any other top prospect to make the team before their age 21 season) is:
· First three years: Entry-level deal, very team-friendly
· Fourth year: RFA without arbitration rights, somewhat team-friendly (Where we were at with Schultz and 'RyJo').
· Fifth through seventh years: RFA with arbitration rights, increasingly unfriendly to teams
· Eighth year through end of career: UFA, where teams pay through the nose
That such an article even needed to come out reifies this particular social relation, the way we perceive the needs of the team (producer, owner, means of production) vis-à-vis the player. The player's contracts and value to the producer is entirely inseparable from the player himself, the focus becomes the player's contract and his perceived value to the team, the league and our own consumption of the player-as-object. The argument that the other writer makes is essentially that players, who take long-term second contracts, recognizing the situation that they are in, ought to consider the team's overall salary structure and the percentage the player takes up while they enter these negotiations. But why should the players take these kinds of concerns into account? They are the ones who take the most risk, as they are the people producing the labour. The team is itself of course a larger commodity, but the players drive up the wealth, the use-value and surplus value of the team. Why shouldn't players be allowed to try and maximize their own benefits and ensure that other players of equal skill are compensated at the same level? Jon Willis at the other blog had this to say:
It’s an objectively worse situation for player and team alike. The player deferred getting money to later instead of earlier; the team deferred paying money to when it needs every penny rather than spending it when it had cap space galore. Just for good measure, the relationship between the two parties has potentially been strained by an acrimonious negotiation over a bridge contract and possibly even arbitration once that contract ended. It's a lose-lose.
This lose-lose Willis describes is a classic case of false consciousness–no matter the result of the contract negotiation the players always lose. Even if they win in terms of the amount of money they have made, they still lose while the owners, generally speaking win almost every single time. Players are no longer people living in the world, they are mere objects for our own consumption and entertainment, assets to be bought and sold depending on the needs and whims of the owners. With commodity fetishism, Marx has very succinctly (for him...) captured the essential nature of all the ideological illusions of bourgeois society. In a league where Millionaires argue with Billionaires, they still end up on the short end of the stick.
Training camp notes:
There appears to be a flock of actual good prospects as well as legitimate NHL players in camp this year, a welcome change given the relative dearth of talent outside of the big club, not to mention on the big club itself.
During a recent visit back to Kingston, I had the chance to watch the Annual Western Canadian prospects tournament with my now former housemate. Held in Penticton BC, the top rookies from Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver (spits!) and the city to the south that shall remain nameless and devoid of talent played a brief tournament, 3 games each in 4 days. It was a lot of fun to watch and the baby Oilers played very well. Highlights include our hulking twin towers up the middle, Leon Draisaitl and Bogdan (Big Bo) Yakimov. These kids are both under 20, over 6"3 and well in the 215lbs+ range. When they grow up they will be monsters and hopefully be around to lead the Oilers back to respectability.
Tonight is the annual split squad games in Edmonton and Calgary. Of course the top prospects and players for each team tend to stay home, while the knuckle-draggers, coke machines and hired goons hit the road. It might not be the best hockey to watch, but hey, hockey is back, and not a minute too soon.