As I write this piece, the Major League Baseball Players Association is setting August 30 as the date on which its members will strike. Even if the players and team owners surprise us and avert a strike, we baseball fans know its just a matter of time, this season or the next or the next, before baseball shoots itself in whatever might be left of its foot.
Thanks to a little luck and a nice job of foresight, professional golf has no such headaches.
The luck is that golf is not a team sport. Professional golfers are little industries unto themselves; the National Labor Relations Act does not allow an organization vote for a union of one.
The foresight shows in the PGA Tours practice of dealing with its players as independent contractors. The last two words of the last sentence have enormous legal ' and economic ' significance.
Dont worry; I wont give you the full law school version (trust me; you dont want it), and none of this will be on the exam. Suffice to say that if someone is your employee, you can direct his work pretty closely ' but you have to deduct his payroll taxes, adhere to all kinds of benefits rules, buy insurance against damage from his actions ' and live with it if he and his pals organize into a union. Oh, and by the bye, if youre a sports league, you might lose your antitrust exemption.
The PGA Tour has used good business judgment to make sure its tournaments are co-sponsored with a local organization ' for instance, the Thunderbirds, who organize the Phoenix Open. That way, the Tour handles the inside-the-ropes stuff to assure a top-quality golf competition that is essentially licensed under the PGA Tour brand. It has also had the good sense to keep each of its players a little one-man company. The players handle their own taxes, travel expenses, and a million other details. The Tour makes sure they have good places to compete, and that theyre comfortable. So far, the system has worked great.
But its a fine line. It came up during the Casey Martin matter, when Martins lawyers tried to attribute to the Tour responsibility for making an accessible workplace inside the ropes. If Tour players were employees under the law, that would be one more way the Americans With Disabilities Act would apply. As it turned out, that issue wasnt necessary to decide the case.
Good thing for the Tour. Theres a long list of factors judges look at when they decide if someone is an employee or an independent contractor. The first thing they do is ignore what the people involved call themselves.
For instance: The Tour cant tell players which events to enter. Independent contractor. But it can tell them they have to play a minimum number if they want to stay members. Employee. Or not?
So far, thanks to that foresight and a lot of care by wise, Congress-savvy heads in Ponte Vedra Beach, the Tour has done a lot better than baseball at managing relations with its performers. Could anything on the order of labor problems derail the Tours admirable growth in sports?
Not much. The Tour has quietly used its political clout and its solid record of providing a comfortable life for its players to put down any efforts at organization (such as the Tournament Players Association a few years back). And even when he was the most recognized player on the planet, Greg Norman couldnt get his plan for a world tour past the PGA Tours gatekeepers. (Word is Norman still seethes about the fact that the idea he advanced in the mid-1990s turned up as the World Golf Championships a few years later.)
Not labor, but one particular laborer, could cause problems. Tiger Woods will not have the same problems Norman did. Last time Tiger let slip the slightest consternation over his relationship with commissioner Finchem, the latter made sure fences were mended ' and strengthened ' without delay.
What if Tiger decides he wants to split his schedule between official games and Tiger-centered exhibitions? International Management Group, for whom Tiger is the star client, essentially invented the big-money exhibition. It could happen, as I discussed recently on Golf Central with Curt Sampson, author of the new book Chasing Tiger, in which he examines Woods effect on golf, sports, and American culture.
Rest assured, Finchem is thinking way ahead ' if only to make sure Seligs first call of the morning isnt to him.