If I am a professional athlete and you are my boss, then this is the law of supply and demand: You supply whatever I demand. Pro athletes fall somewhere among kidnappers, hijackers and the Islamic Jihad as groups most closely associated with the phrase "list of demands." We all know of athletes who have demanded more money, demanded to be traded, demanded to be heard, demanded more playing time, demanded an apology, demanded respect or demanded to speak to an attorney. But money aside, their demands historically were all but ignored. Counted out by a referee, a boxer could demand a recount, but he wasn't likely to get one.
Of late, though, athletes have been issuing edicts to their leagues, owners and/or coaches, and those leagues, owners and/or coaches have been complying with the decrees of their employees. Who's the boss? You tell me: David Robinson demands a chartered airplane, and San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs rolls over like the odometer on a '74 Subaru; the Spurs may never fly commercial again. Los Angeles Clippers captain Danny Manning demands on behalf of the players that coach Mike Schuler cancel a practice scheduled for Martin Luther King Day, and, sure enough, a simmering Schuler winds up alone in the gym, running a zero-man weave. Two weeks later, he is running to the help-wanted ads.
The only thing more demanding than the NBA schedule is an NBA player. The petulant and arrogant demands of these guys now mesh with the dictionary definition of the word: i.e., claims that allow "no chance for refusal or denial." It used to be that athletes' demands were charming in their petulance and arrogance, as when St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Garry Templeton holed up in his house after being named a reserve for the 1981 All-Star Game and told baseball officials, "If I ain't startin', I ain't departin'." At least it rhymed.
Such declarations were more like bold dares than cold pronouncements, smacking more of the proud athlete than, say, the savvy businessman. Not that I have any problem with Michael Jordan, who last week informed the NBA that it may no longer use his likeness on apparel, as he has sold that exclusive right to Nike (SCORECARD, page 9). I mean, so what if the league acquiesced to its most famous employee? And so what if Jordan is a de facto employee of the NBA, a person whose earning power and celebrity might be less broad were he playing in Stuttgart and appearing holographically on the cover of Per Spiegel'?
At least Jordan, unlike Robinson or the Clippers, was open to compromise. Sure, he told league bosses that they cannot continue to ink shirts in his image, but he charitably said he would not require opponents to obtain the express written consent of Nike before shooting a ball in his face.
It would be wrong to suggest that the supply of demands is higher in the NBA than in other sports. Pro basketball just happens to be in season. For instance, long before he broke Lou Brock's alltime record for stolen bases last spring, Oakland A's lefllielder Rickey Henderson told his reluctant employers that he wanted a Ferrari Testarossa to mark the occasion. If he didn't get the car, Rickey intimated, he might not play well. Who's the boss? You tell me: Rickey got a Porsche and he didn't play well.
Long on Rickeys, baseball is short on Branch Rickeys. When all worthwhile rights—integration, free agency—have been won, what is left to demand? Barry Bonds is the Curt Flood of his day. Last week the Pittsburgh Pirate leftfielder demanded and won a clause in his new one-year, $4.7 million contract that grants him his own suite of hotel rooms whenever the Pirates play in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. God willing, one day there will be three TVs and two toilets for every player on a West Coast road trip.
All of this raises the question, Why not call these bluffs? Answer: for the same reason we don't call the Rocky Mountains bluffs. That is, because they aren't bluffs. Leagues, team owners and especially the disposable coaches arc all hostage both to a star player's popularity ( Robinson's chartered-jet demand was printed as an open letter to fans in both San Antonio newspapers) and to a star player's security (he really can afford to take his ball and go home).
Like Beirut bike messengers, the media have been kept busy conveying these demands; now we, too, arc being asked to meet them. At a press conference during Super Bowl hype week, Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas expressed dissatisfaction with his media-generated label as "the best all-around back in the NFL" and allowed that he wouldn't mind being known as "the Michael Jordan of the Bills." In fact, Thomas is more like the Michael Jackson of the Bills. After all, it was Jackson's handlers who demanded that networks broadcasting his Black & White video refer to the singer, on the air, as the King of Pop. Funnier still, the networks did just that.
True story, or I'm not the King of Print.