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Monday, June 22, 2009

HOOP SCOOP

Unions give athletes solidarity, provide more protection


Second in a two-part series

Perhaps better than anyone, Dr. Peter Miller understands the value of unions in professional sports. His father, Marvin, served as the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association (1966-83) and ushered in a new era in North American pro sports, an era in which players gained a collective voice and negotiated an historic collective bargaining agreement in 1968.

Ed Odeven

Marvin Miller imparted this wisdom to his son.

Forty-one years later, the younger Miller recognizes the need for bj-league players to join forces and establish a union; otherwise, player contracts and related issues will be controlled by one side — management.

Making matters more complex, he noted, was the fact that the league has a large number of foreign players, including Tokyo Apache forward Dameion Baker, who has had an ongoing ordeal with the team since suffering an Achilles tendon injury in the bj-league championship game on May 17, was hospitalized and had surgery two days after sustaining the injury. Baker, who joined the team in February, a few weeks after the midway point of the season, was uninsured this season. (See the first part of this series for a detailed account of this issue.)

Miller, in fact, said Baker's situation underscores the problem that players have — and will continue to have — in this non-union league. In addition, several bj-league players have told The Japan Times they "have no voice" when it comes to contractual issues, playing conditions, schedules, etc.

News photo
Valuable contributor: Tokyo Apache forward Dameion Baker (right), guarding Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix forward Stanley Ocitti in the Eastern Conference final, made a big impact on the court for the Apache this season. After sustaining an Achilles tendon injury on May 17, he's coped with the painful reality that the bj-league and his team operate slowly when it comes to finalizing financial agreements for health-related issues. KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

"Employers in any country, including Japan, do not give anything voluntarily," Miller, an MLB Players Association representative who has lived in Japan for more than a quarter-century, wrote in an e-mail from New York.

"Absent a collective bargaining agreement, there is nothing in most sports contracts or law to compel employers to provide, or pay for the costs of, medical care under terms and conditions that are acceptable to the player.

"In general, players are regarded as expendable by employers who fail to insure or otherwise cover the costs of injuries or illness incurred in the course of employment. The problem is further compounded by the uncertain status of foreign players vis-a-vis health care in Japan or in their home countries. Injuries are part of sports. Any sports agent who fails to negotiate some provision for treating injuries is doing his client a terrible disservice."

By the way, it should be pointed out that Baker didn't have an agent representing him while he was with the Apache this season.

"No player, foreign or Japanese, should be allowed to step onto the court without health insurance, given the likelihood of injuries," Miller said. "Individual players, even superstars, have very little bargaining power as individuals. The only way they will ever get adequate health coverage is by acting as a group, in other words, a union.

"Relying on the voluntary generosity of employers in any country is not an intelligent strategy. Publicity is not likely to be effective either, if the players themselves are not willing to act as a group. Simply put, there's no game without the entire group of players, but the game can and does go on perfectly well without any particular individual player."

Baseball agent Don Nomura, who played an integral role in the exodus of Japanese players to MLB teams, starting with his coveted client Hideo Nomo in 1995, chimed in on this timely topic during a lengthy telephone conversation with The Japan Times this week.

Nomura, however, noted that Nippon Professional Baseball players aren't technically employees of the league's 12 clubs. Instead, he said, the players are considered individual contractors of their respective teams.

Having said that, Nomura pointed out that the Nippon Professional Baseball Players Association has limited power.

"It's a group, but not technically recognized as a union."

Author Robert Whiting, who has penned the classics "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," and "You Gotta Have Wa" and other well-known books, offered a detailed explanation of this distinctly Japanese characteristic and how it affects the NPB's labor-related issues.

News photo
Mixed emotions: Young Tokyo Apache supporters meet veteran forward Dameion Baker (33) after a game this season at Ariake Colosseum. Baker's Achilles tendon injury in the bj-league's championship game on May 17, which was followed by surgery and still-to-be-started physical rehab, leaves him with an uncertain status for next season. KAZ NAGATSUKA PHOTO

"The NPBPA is a collection of people who are individual contractors, not regular employees," Whiting wrote in an e-mail. "The basic rationale is that players are freelancers while company employees have the right to expect lengthy employment and gradual promotion over the years. Ballplayers have a much shorter life span as money-earning athletes, but earn a lot more in that brief time than the average Taro does over the course of his full career of employment.

"On the other hand, many years ago, back in the '80s, the NPBPA formed and went to court to win the legal right to strike. NPBPA rep Kiyoshi Nakahata immediately said, 'We could never strike like the Americans do. It wouldn't be fair to the owners and fans.' Of course, they eventually did strike, in 2004, with their tepid two-day walkout.

"But the power is in the hands of the players to make — and get — more concessions, in regard to health care costs, rights to their own images, shorter free agency, etc., if they really want to assert themselves. But they are reluctant to do it. They don't want to make waves and rock the boat. Disrupt 'wa.' Be thought of badly by fans and stadium workers, etc."

* * * * *

By all accounts, professional basketball is still in its infancy in Japan. That's the reality. But the basic business parameters described above would apply to the bj-league, which wrapped up its fourth season last month, as well. And the league's unionization could present difficult obstacles in the future, especially from a legal standpoint.

Using the NPB again as an example, Nomura believes Japanese courts would side with Japanese baseball owners if an NPB labor issue went to court, citing that players aren't technically employees of a team.

But Nomura also knows quite clearly about the significance of unions in North American sports and the role they've played in transforming the economic structure of those sports.

"Historically," he said, "every team has cheated players out of everything."

In Japanese baseball, he added, "every player has been (expletive), and I'm sure basketball and soccer even more."

Analyzing the ordeal Baker has gone through since his May 17 injury, Nomura said it's simply ridiculous that the Tokyo Apache haven't settled the issue by now and finalized an agreement with Baker to pay for his physical rehabilitation.

Nomura also believes the issue should've been handled much more quickly. "I think he should get a lawyer and sue the club," Nomura said, proposing one attention-getting option for Baker. "That (option) should scare the club."

But Nomura also acknowledged that the team bears a responsibility to pay for all of Baker's medical bills related to his Achilles tendon injury.

"I think the team should pay for his rehab (here), or send him back (to the United States to begin rehab). Everything else is just an excuse to cut corners," he said bluntly.

To find common ground, Nomura said the Apache and Baker should accept the team's doctor recommendation for the rehab schedule as soon as possible.

"The team doesn't want him to rehab forever," Nomura noted. "So there has to be a happy medium between the player and the team. If the doctor orders five weeks of rehab," he added, "it should be for five weeks.

"Anything longer has to be renegotiated."

When it comes to his own clients, Nomura advises them to take a proactive stance when it comes to health insurance, citing it as a way to safeguard their future. For instance, he's pleased about the fact that his client Aaron Guiel, a veteran outfielder with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, has continued to pay his MLB insurance premium after coming to Japan.

When he sustained an elbow injury last season, Guiel opted to file a claim by using his own insurance to cover the cost of surgery in the United States instead of seeking treatment in Japan, according to Nomura. The Swallows, however, also have an insurance policy for Guiel and that money essentially was used to pay for his airplane ticket and hotel bill.

So what have we learned?

This much is certain: Baker, the Apache and the bj-league can learn a valuable lesson by following the example set by Guiel. We also understand that the establishment of a bj-league players' union would help the league develop a more balanced approach to labor-related issues in the future.



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