Growing up, politics and social justice were always in the background of my life. They, however, weren’t the most important things for me as an elementary school student. One of my biggest loves growing up was professional basketball, especially the New York Knicks. Although the Knicks never won a championship, I cannot count the great childhood memories associated with watching, following, and supporting my boys in the orange and blue.
As I grew older, it became tougher to follow New York City sports. I went to college in Maine, in the heart of Boston Red Sox nation. Despite scores of opportunistic Yankee enthusiasts abounding my campus, Knick fans were a rare commodity. Slowly, my free time increasingly became dedicated to watching New England sports, social activism with the Young Democratic Socialists, and hanging with my friends. Since my return home, I’ve had more time to watch the Knicks; however, they fall short of the team of my youth.
Once a championship contender, the Knicks face the inability to make the playoffs despite the highest payroll in the league. Team owner James Dolan (whose family also owns the NY Rangers hockey team, world-famous Madison Square Garden, and the 5th largest American cable company) and Knicks coach and President Isiah Thomas are running the team into the ground. Despite chants to "fire Isiah” from Garden crowds, Dolan stands by his man. If the capitalist Knicks ownership is unwilling to take the right steps towards correcting poor leadership, the Knicks fan community must.
The fans frequently shout “sell the Knicks” and believe terminating Dolan family ownership is the solution to the team’s ills. I challenge the notion that Knicks fandom’s salvation lies in James Dolan departure. What makes us think that if we sell the Knicks, another owner will save our beloved team?This is a great opportunity for us to propose an alternative form of ownership: let the fans and team staff manage and own the Knicks. The following is a radical and realistic proposal. It is meant to spark suggestions, challenges, and inquires to find the best blueprint for success.
It's not enough to say that the Knicks, like all professional sports teams, are social entertainment and therefore should be held in social ownership.When public entities, like mass transit or hospitals, are privately owned the public good is threatened.You don't have to be a leftist to be disgusted at tax breaks and tax subsidies that sports corporations receive.Just recently, independent billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council have been working to end Madison Square Garden tax breaks established when the Garden said they would move the Knicks and Rangers. Teams often get such funding when threatening to leave cities. The best way to prevent corporate abuse of a city's attachment to their team is social ownership. In addition, because a sports team is more of a public entity than a for profit business, its ownership must reflect the public's needs alongside the unique workforce of some of the world's best athletes.
I am often an advocate of industrial democracy: a system where workers – not the state or concentrated capital – co-run workplaces with a democratically chosen management. I support no such system for the Knicks (i.e. team players and staff being the sole owners). Sports teams, unlike other forms of businesses, have a unique consumer base. Fans are not your typical clients. Occasionally I go to New Jersey Nets games because the tickets are cheaper, but I won’t stop being a Knicks fan. When possible, I will buy Knicks tickets out of a sense of loyalty and enjoyment (even in defeat) that I simply can’t get with another team. Knicks still get most of my basketball spending, whether they are good or bad.
Socialists must recognize that there is a different social relationship between fans and teams then customers and businesses. A genuine fan is rewarded by his peers and own sense of self-worth in sticking with a team through thick and thin. Some may gravitate from team to team because of winning records. Opportunistic sports fans are viewed negatively as “band wagon supporters” or “front runners.” The most loyal fans stand the most to gain and lose with the ability of the teams to perform in the long run. Management and players may make millions, but it is diehard fans who must relive successes and failures. They’ll face a lifetime of next day of school taunts for previous nights game winning missed shot, co-worker and friends’ rival teams stories of glory, and looks of disappointment at the rafters of championship banners that could-have-been. Many a fan would trade those nasty feelings for copious amounts of cash.
Professional athletes do deserve collective bargaining and labor rights, but they are not your typical workers. Players are traded, switch teams as free agents, and retire young. Their loyalty to teams is short sighted, even if genuine. Yes, players deserve a high share in the profits since they produce the wealth. But their lack of long term commitment to their employers (or later jobs) makes it impractical to them to have majority franchise ownership. The labor status of players lends to promoting community ownership instead of industrial democracy.
What can be done?
One possibility: Knicks fans become the stock holders of the franchise. Each fan would have a limited ownership of the team. Similar to the National Football League's Green Bay Packers, which is community owned, fans could buy stocks that cannot appreciate in value. Absent the profit incentive, many stockholders would invest because of their interest in the team's future. This means the Knicks would be run as a cooperative. By limiting the amount of individual stocks one can own, it would be possible to spread out ownership of the Knicks and protect democratic control of the franchise. Fan-owners could elect a board to hire management. Day-to-day operations would be run by the management, but long-term control would rest in a mass of stock holders and their elected representatives. Knicks players and staff could be given equal shares as well.
How do we get there?
In order to save our social entertainment, we as fans need to build a social movement. Knicks fan organizing has already started; fans are in front of the garden protesting, not attending games, shouting “fire Thomas,” signing petition, etc. Such activism needs to turn into a broader movement to pressure Dolan and possibly the state.
We need increased numbers of fans protesting, days of action against mismanagement, and coordinated boycotts instead of individual absences from games. All of this must be done with the strategic intention to either pressure Dolan to sell or at least fire Thomas. Another target could be the city government. A long-shot possibility is the city could trustee the Knicks from the Dolan family and then sell off shares to the fans and facilitate the change in ownership. If the civil rights movement could get the federal government to pass civil rights laws, the city – if pressured right – could fall to social pressure. There are many options, but only one goal: that the Knicks should truly be owned by the people.
David Duhalde is the National Organizer for the Young Democratic Socialists and a die-hard Knicks fan.