cap hits, contract negotiations and commodity fetishism.

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...
Extortion? See above...
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.

Go Oilers

SWS


On Bettman, relocation and value extraction: A guest post


An article appeared on Reddit recently that prompted this post's creation. Nothing seems to get people more interested in writing for this blog (if you're not me that is) than the stink of hypocrisy and bullshit that follows NHL commissioner Gary Bettman like the dust cloud that followed Pig Pen. With that in mind, I'd like to introduce our newest guest blogger, Mikhail Bjørge to the team. He doesn't like Gary very much and wants to tell the world why. This is actually somewhat appropriate given the temporary new mission statement of bringing back the glory (the teaching blog) given that Mikhail will also be giving a guest lecture in my class next week. Here we go: 



For the first time in recent memory, there has been some whining on the internet.  Gary Bettman recently said in regards to relocation rumours: "Nobody's moving. And speculation to the contrary not only is wrong, it's unfair to the team and their fans who are being speculated about."  The plural nature of "fans" in regards to the Panthers notwithstanding, I think people misunderstand the role of Bettman in the league. 

His goal, his only and sole goal, is to make the owners money.  Full stop.  He doesn't want to “grow the game” for the sake of growing the game–he wants to make the owners money.  He doesn't care about the "on-ice product," (suppressing vomit at the nomenclature), he wants to make the owners money.  Everything he does, negative or positive, is to make the owners money.  If the fans like it or not is purely incidental, he wants to make the owners money.  In the 'True Facts About the Gary Bettman', “that’s what the Gary do.” 

A big way Gary makes the owners money is by increasing the value of their teams, and there is no denying that he has done just that with aplomb.  One of the big reasons, if not the biggest reason, that teams have value is because of their potential for relocation, mainly to Canada.  Nobody is going to pay ~$1 billion dollars for a team that loses $10-30 million a year in the American south.  Those teams, in any reality, are worth between a few million and a few tens of millions if they cannot relocate.  They have no gate, they are hockey-revenue negative, and exist to excise rents from non-hockey related revenue (mainly the control of the arena, parking, and concession), all subsidized via revenue sharing and leeching off the local citizens via the local plutocrats/oligarchy.  These hockey-as-vector teams value lies in the potential for moving, and this is good for the league, because it keeps team values artificially inflated.


Now, all hockey teams cry poor.  Nearly every team claims they lose money.  It's almost ubiquitously bullshit.  Take the Edmonton Oilers, owned by Batman.  Katz claims that the Oil loses money, and on paper, that's probably true.  Their only revenue is the gate, and their expenditures are everything, from paying Rexall (Katz's pharmacy conglomerate) for naming rights on the (old) arena, to salaries to sundries - and teams are allowed to write off nearly anything as expenditure.  It should be a scandal, but it’s not.  Also, teams are private entities, their books are closed as fuck, so even trying to untangle the web of economic deceit is a nonstarter.  One doesn’t need to know the recipe to get the essentials on the palate.  The Oilers also own (through Katz Sports Entertainment) other teams that essentially lose money (like the OKC Barons, the primary farm team for the Oilers), appear to lose money, or are dormant, (like the local AA semi-pro baseball team).  All revenue streams are in other, non-KSE numbered corporations.  This is classic Hollywood accounting, maximize paper losses and minimize paper revenue.  Collect losses onto the team, externalize profits into the non-team, and extract concessions from differing levels of government.  The idiots in Edmonton bought his bullshit, and subsidized his team to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in a new arena/arena area/buildings/Wealth Extraction Devices for a local billionaire. 

(Editor's note: this new arena of course had its naming rights conveniently purchased by Rogers, putting more profit into the hands of the billionaire we call Batman rather than back into the hands of the good denizens of Edmonton that subsidized its construction–the same Rogers group that just purchased control of the NHL media network in Canada.)

The thing is, some teams actually lose money, even with revenue sharing.  And these teams are bad for the league.  They cost owners money, because owners have to prop them up.  The NHL isn't the NFL; self-socialism-for-the-rich (really, a boss-owned cooperative) only works if everyone is making decent money. Then it improves the product and produces equity which makes owners money.  This is not the case in the NHL.  There are very weak teams in incredibly weak markets, and this is not going to change going into the future.  One could put a successful NFL team in Toronto, we have collectively seen that one cannot put a successful NHL franchise in deserts and tropical swamps.  One can’t create fandom.  A professional cricket team would fail in Phoenix, no matter how much the Cricket Commissioner talked about its intrinsic stability.

Florida is actually safer than people believe, as it's really only a vector for Sunrise Sports and Entertainment to make money from the venue. As long as that holds, the Panthers are not in terrible danger to move.  The same cannot be said for Arizona, Carolina, and to a slightly lesser extent, Nashville.  Even with Florida’s sweetheart deal, the owners cannot overlook the fact that if they moved to Quebec City, they could move, then immediately flip the team to Quebecor for an easy quarter-billion dollar profit, go back and buy half of Florida, and live the rest of their lives as the parasitic shit-lords they are, but with less stress and exponentially more little tiny umbrellas in tropically coloured drinks. 

Speaking of making obscene profits, there are basically three-and-a-half markets that are salivating ATMs for the rich.  Toronto, Hamilton, and Quebec City, and possibly Seattle if a billionaire tech parasite could be found to be a hockey fan, or at least a basketball fan that tolerates the cold. (We're looking at you, Steve Ballmer, especially if your bid to buy the Clippers collapses under the weight of all that litigation).  I’m leaving Las Vegas out here, because the team wouldn’t be purchased to create a fan base, it would be created as a “draw,” probably by a conglomerate of casinos, and 100% of the tickets would be comps.  It’s a differing situation for this analysis (although it exists within the same capitalist parameters).  A team could conceivably be purchased for $110-$130 million, which is fair market value for a business that is ostensibly deep in the red, and moved in the middle of the night, Baltimore  Indianapolis Colts style. Throw in a $60 million "relocation fee" (bribe) to the owners, and voila, hockey moves to a market that wants it. The problem is, that's a fuck of a lot less than ~$1 billion, which is where the bidding would go for another Toronto team, and ~$300M-~$700M for Quebec/Hamilton.

Relocation fees and expansion tickets are pure profit for the owners. Under the CBA, the players see literally nothing from them - except the headaches of an expansion draft or the pain of relocation.  Bettman exists to make the owners money, and expansion is more profitable for the owners than relocation. However, the owners do not have unlimited patience, and propping up unprofitable (under whatever rubric) teams while there are potential wealth extraction units is leaving money on the table.  What will probably end up happening, despite the relocation/expansion economic juxtaposition, is that two nonperforming teams will move to Seattle and Quebec, and the deep pockets in Toronto and Las Vegas (one corporate, one wealthy family) will pay an insane fee for a new franchise. This is the plan the makes the owners the most money, and that’s Gary’s job, so that’s probably the plan. They can’t say that, because then the teams are worth nothing, and that wouldn’t make the owners money. But anyone with any business acumen can see that the plan will not look substantially different. This will lead to league-wide stability, and huge profits for the owners going forwards. Bettman exists to make the owners money, and he will.

For more on profit scoundrelism see:

And finally, for more on the CBA and revenue sharing, this is essential reading: 

Go Oilers!

And.... we're back (sort of)




It's training camp, the start of a new year and the kids look alright. The prospects have a lot more potential than I've seen in a long time and there might just be reason for cautious optimism rather than the usual Oilers brand of selling hope and then wishing you hadn't bought a goddamn thing. In other news, I have a job now--a real, actual professorial gig at a small Ontario University that shall remain nameless. And as a result of this new job, combined with training camp and the upcoming season, the blog is coming back to life with a slightly changed format, at least from me. (Admittedly I honestly have no idea if any of the other writers still care about this space. I all but took it over exclusively in 2012, but that's beside the point). The fact remains, I will be writing about the Oilers and classical social theory, in lockstep with my own course so that my new students can see that I actually care about them and am willing to have a form of pedagogical praxis instead of being a shitty "do as I say, not as I do" kind of prof. They'll be writing about a number of different topics but I'll be back to a bi-weekly(ish) schedule of Oilers commentary. This weekend will start with a review of training camp and the young stars tournament that was, likely filtered through some sort of Marxist approach.

In the meantime, if anyone still reads this space that isn't enrolled in my class, I'll try and keep it interesting.

Go Oilers!

SWS

Accountability.

There's been an endless amount of talk on the various Oiler blogs about suck, failure, the general badness of the team and the reasons for it. These reasons include but are not limited to the lack of an NHL calibre defence, questionable goaltending (as much as I love Bryzgalov - he's the most quotable Oiler since Fatso Penner), not enough depth, too many of the same types of players, missing a big 2C, poor management, Kevin Lowe, the Pronger curse, the Smytty curse, and even something as simple as "God hates us all". The fan-base is in a frenzy and the jersey tossing masses are getting restless. Even the most optimistic fans and bloggers are starting to lose their composure and fall into the trap of pessimism, something I wrote about in my more prolific days, moonlighting at the CopperNBlue about three years ago. You know, it's funny (not "ha ha" funny, more like "face-palm" funny); there's been so much angst and bitterness for so many years that I forgot some of the stuff many of us were writing about back in the early days of the infinibuild. Even then, the obvious solution was to burn the whole thing down. Here's a slightly edited for context chunk of what I wrote at CnB back in January of 2011: 

"Bringing it back to the Oilers, the idea of the rebuild espoused by the organization is the grand narrative currently being used to bait the general public into believing that everything is okay. Derek has pessimistically contradicted this hope with the concept of (mis)management as his own counter-historical narrative... The purpose here is not to argue which theory (bad luck vs. mismanagement; pessimism vs. nihilism) is correct, but instead to demonstrate that seeing things in absolutes is problematic. There are likely aspects of both of these ideas that are correct; just as luck has played into the decline, so too has (mis)management... Context is everything. Finally, it seems there is only one course of action that remains to bring about a more desirable future: Revolution. "




The revolution that I was sort of blathering on about 3 years ago seems to be starting now, with the Fire Lowe campaign, the jersey tossing, and pessimism reigning over much of the Oilers Blogosphere (LT and maybe Black Dog excepted). But until the players themselves start considering their own actions and how their actions impact others, nothing will change. I'm quite torn here. I want to say that no amount of change at the top is going to make the players (workers) play harder, yet my political beliefs lie somewhere else - that overthrowing the bosses ought to make everything better. In a sense, the players have already overthrown the bosses 5 times since 2009. Mac was fired, Quinn was fired. Renney, Krueger, and Tambo all were let go and while some could argue that Quinn and Tambo never should have happened in the first place, still nothing has changed. This is why I am torn; the theory that overthrowing the bosses will lead us to something great seems to fall apart in this particular instance. It's rather unsettling, quite frankly.


So instead of preaching revolution, today I am going to write about a concept called "accountability." Theoretically I should know something about this. As a soon-to-be professor who has his own class to teach and design, I am accountable to my students to make sure that I am providing them with the necessary tools to succeed in the classroom, something that coaches can relate to. But that accountability can only go so far. Teachers, like coaches aren't responsible for the performance of individual students. Their jobs are to provide the tools for success, the right game plan if you will, to provide structure and to reach students in different ways. However it is not entirely up to the teacher to motivate the students to want to do their best. Try as we might, no teacher is capable of reaching every student. To an extent, that motivation has to come from within, as the teaching-learning dynamic is fluid, not exclusively top-down. The teacher gives assignments, provides ideas, and works with individuals and groups of students to help them to succeed in the courses they take. Students, however, don't always want to try to put in the work. Sometimes they want to sleep through your lectures. Sometimes they expect the teacher to just give them a PowerPoint (or other sort of presentation software) slideshow. Many want to be spoon-fed and to put in the minimum amount of effort required to pass the class. As the old saying goes: "C's get Degrees."


In a university classroom, there is an unspoken agreement between strong students and willing instructors that basically goes like this: "I'll do the work if I give a fuck, provided that if I give a fuck, you'll give me an A and possibly a letter of reference for grad school/law school/professional program X." I teach a lot of 20-22 year olds. They're good kids, if not a little bit too pampered and privileged for their own good, but some of them are so used to having everything handed to them that they just tune everything out. Some of them also don't give a flying fuck what I am teaching and are there because they assumed (incorrectly) that a course without a final exam is essentially a bird course. 


I wonder if some of this is happening with the Oilers kids. Many of them are really young, have spent their whole lives being successful without having to put in a boatload of effort, and then suddenly they have more money than they know what to do with, and since they're used to being the best, they feel like they don't have to try and hold up their end of the agreement. Many of these Oiler kids have all the skills in the world, incredible talents and endless potential, but they coast because they either aren't motivated or they aren't holding up their own ends of this unspoken agreement. Instead of A grades and reference letters, hockey players get contracts for lots of money. The Oilers kids got their A grades in advance of writing their kick-ass papers but under normal circumstances, the A grades and reference letters require a modicum of work. Instead of acting like A students or even the really hungry B students who want to get better, the Oilers kids play like C students. They take shifts off, they don't show up until the last day of class, and then they complain when they don't get the results they expected. Where's the accountability? Well, they've gotten their grades in advance, what's left? Why show up?


It's easy as a fan to blame management all the time, and admittedly the current management is trying to clean up a mess that is so massive it could take another 2-3 years to overcome. However that doesn't mean the players who are here, who are making giant amounts of money to play a game shouldn't be held accountable for their roles in the collapse of the team. There's no academic probation for talented players in the NHL, there's no dean's vacation either, as teams are too concerned with managing a salary cap to use buyouts with top players who under-perform. Taylor Hall knows he's safe and he's set for the rest of his life. Same with RNH. It's the players on the bottom, the players who would be expected to be C students, the students who were (potentially unfairly) streamed towards technical college and the trades for whatever reasons (usually racist or class-biased) like Ben Eager who get shipped out or sent to the farm (the equivalent of academic probation in this analogy), while the talent and potential allow the kids to maintain their positions in the hierarchy of students, it is almost entirely because the allure of that potential is greater than the actualization or their results. 


It's time for a change, but this change has to come from within, not be forced from above or below. 


Go Oilers!


SWS