It is not only because the word compensation is three syllables over par for us hard-thinking jocks that it has become the biggest word in sports. No, it’s simply that in a conversation with a pro athlete these days you’re out if you haven’t read all about it.
Compensation, or the battle over it, almost caused the baseball strike last month and may yet bring it about next spring. Compensation was a topic treated like an approaching piranha when NHL players and owners met a while back in Nassau. Ballplayers, most of whom are American, will
go to war over compensation. Hockey players, most of whom are Canadian, shun the subject, fearful it might pluck a goose already golden. This tells you something about the two games and about the two countries.
Until 1975, owners possessed their ballplaying chattels for life. Then an arbitrator ruled, and the courts confirmed, that when a player’s contract expired he was free to sell his services to the most attractive bidder. In short, he became a free agent. When this happened, did the players grow mad with greed? No, the owners did. The owners turned players wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, falling over themselves to attract unattached guys with bats or arms or gloves for hire. One owner, a wealthy horseman, offered free-agent Pete Rose enormously expensive Thoroughbred broodmares in foal, which could have launched the ballplayer in the rich man’s game of horse breeding. It was only one of several astonishing bids, each promising lifelong security on a grand scale. When Rose finally signed with the Phillies for $800,000 a year, the television station that airs the team’s games voluntarily increased the fee it pays for broadcast rights to accommodate Rose’s salary.
Recognizing their folly but apparently helpless to protect themselves from themselves, the owners instructed their negotiator, Ray Grebey, that they
wanted compensation when they lost a free agent; they wanted a ballplayer from the roster of the team that signed him. But the players, through their association’s boss, Marvin Miller, wanted no such swap. Free agentry would lose its clout. What the owners seemed to forget in pushing the players to the brink was that while the sweaty serfs have never had it so good, the owners have never had it so good, either. Attendance has never been better and
television money has never approached today’s astronomical levels. This year, baseball’s package for the tiny screen leaped to $185 million from $93 million and attendance is ahead of last year’s record 43 million fans.
At the eleventh hour, sanity intervened upon a six-month impasse: the owners agreed to an earlier player suggestion that the compensation issue be postponed for further discussions and the players agreed not to pick up the ball and go home. Dozens more players will become free agents this fall and, with compensation still an unsettled issue, owners will continue to hurl inducements at their heads—untold riches, wives, daughters, even the last dime of their life insurance, who knows?
Meantime, in hockey, the agreement between players and owners has the players virtually in bondage, but they don’t plan a solitary move against it. The war between the NHL and the defunct WHA shot salaries into the low
six-figure bracket for most players, and they’re perfectly content with that. Hockey has an arbitrator, Judge Eddie Houston of Ottawa, who rules so stringently that owners are loath to claim free agents, fearing the compensation his honor is apt to bestow. There hasn’t been a free-agent squabble of any consequence in hockey since the judge ordered Detroit to send its No. 1 draft choice and rookie sensation, Dale McCourt, to Los Angeles as compensation when the Red Wings signed veteran goaltender Rogie Vachon two years ago. The case was settled out of court a year later when McCourt balked at the arbitrator’s decision.
This is one of only two notable cases involving free-agent arbitration in all of hockey’s history. A third loomed, that of Toronto goaltender Mike Palmateer. But he signed with Washington and arbitration was avoided when the Capitals provided Toronto with acceptable compensation.
Hockey players showed there would be no boatrocking when they gathered at Nassau. “We’re not going to be radical, we’re not looking at a strike,” purred the union’s president, Phil Esposito of the NewYork Rangers.“With no WHA the league got a little stronger last season, and with Atlanta moving to Calgary it’ll be stronger again.”
In such an atmosphere, ballplayers might be expected to want a finger in the salubrious pie. Not so with hockey’s grateful peons. “You have to consider the owners,” says Leaf defenceman Ian Turnbull, a six-figure-salary man. “Some of the rinks aren’t sold out, you know.”
That’s a Canadian talking. This is a country that has fewer civil liberties than its southerly neighbor, that is unquestioning for the most part of the rightness of its laws and its institutions. In the freestyle U.S., the individual takes care of his own interests first, and he resents people telling him what to do. In Canada, we respect authority. In the U.S., they’ve been known to shoot it.
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