‘Sports Are Different’

Photo credit: Bob Steckmest, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications.

Alumnus Don Fehr explains a unique economic model

The Major League Baseball Players’ Association is the only union that has ever received a ringing endorsement from conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh.

That, says Don Fehr, is an example of how topsy-turvy the world of professional sports – and its economics – is. It’s a world that differs markedly from the world of employers, employees and workplaces the rest of us inhabit, he said, introducing a Master Class he called “Sports Are Different” at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Student Union.

“We give sports deference in ways that are really weird. It is so abnormal, in fact, that sometimes you have to just stop and ask yourself, ‘Is this what’s really going on?’ ”

For example, he said, Limbaugh has applauded baseball players because their sport is the only major professional sport that operates within true free-market capitalism – and only because the players demanded it; the others are colluding monopolies. It’s no coincidence, he adds, that baseball is also the major professional sport that has gone the longest without a strike or lockout.

Fehr should know. A 1973 graduate of the UMKC School of Law, Fehr spent 33 years with the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, the last 26 as executive director. Today, he is executive director of the National Hockey League Players’ Association.

His master class presentation was one of four such classes presented by outstanding UMKC alumni as part of the university’s 80th anniversary Founders’ Week celebration. Other presenters were Dr. Cynthia Watson (’78 A&S), associate dean for Research & Outreach at the National War College in Washington, on “Sino-U.S. Relations: Why is this so hard?”; two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter  James B. Steele (’67 A&S; HD ’04, A&S), contributing editor for Vanity Fair, on “Who Will Be the Watchdog? The Future of Investigative Reporting in America”; and Dr. Timothy Buie (’84 Medicine), pediatric gastroenterologist, Lurie Center for Autism at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, on “Speechless: Lessons Learned from Caring for My Autism Patients.”

To illustrate the difference between sports and the real world, he talked about the unique permissions the U.S. government has given to pro sports leagues in how they treat their employees – permissions that would be unthinkable for employees in any other industry. He used School of Law Dean Ellen Suni – conveniently seated in the front row of the audience – as his teaching aid.

“Imagine the chancellor walking into Dean Suni’s office, and he says ‘Hey, I’ve got great news. You’ve been traded to the University of Idaho. We got an engineering TA in return,” Fehr said. “Imagine if the world ran that way. Imagine if Microsoft could trade employees to Apple?”

The process begins with players at the very beginning of their careers, when the various leagues conduct their drafts.

“You get a choice. You go the team that drafts you, or you find another profession.” He said that not only players, but cities, counties and states are also subjected to the whims of the leagues. Governments pay huge subsidies to teams and arenas simply to prevent them from picking up and moving to another jurisdiction that will make them an offer.

“As a society, we are tolerating, encouraging and maintaining monopolies.”

As for the players whose interests he represents, Fehr strongly disputes the common notion that these professionals should be grateful for the opportunity to be paid high salaries to play a game.

“That is as far from the truth as you can get,” he said. First, the thing that separates people with long pro careers from those who don’t make it is not athletic ability, as most people assume. It is intelligence and work ethic.

“There are vastly more athletes with the physical capability to play at the elite level than there is room for,” Fehr said. “They have to have the work ethic to take them to the very top level of the most competitive environment you can find … where there is always someone younger, better, faster – and cheaper – trying to take their place.  And they have to have the intellectual capacity to understand the game. If you can’t think, you can’t play.

“And,” he concluded, “you have to want to win more than you want to breathe.”

At the MLBPA, Fehr led the players union through the 1990 player lockout and two strikes, including the  232-day 1994–95 strike and subsequent World Series cancellation, the first since 1904. He was instrumental in implementing the rejection of future admissions into the MLBPA by replacement players who planned to fill in during the strike of 1995. Fehr litigated the collusion cases of the 1980s, which led to the owners paying $280 million in damages to the players; won the bad-faith bargaining case that ended the 1994-95 strike and subsequently negotiated an agreement; and negotiated new agreements with MLB in 2002 and 2006.

Early in his career as a young lawyer, Fehr worked on a landmark case for the MLBPA in the Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally arbitration case, which would become known as the Seitz decision, winning the players’ rights to free agency after playing one year for their team without a contract.

Fehr resides with his wife, Stephanie (’71, A&S; ’76, Education) in New York. He was the recipient of the School of Law Alumni Achievement Award in 1991 and returned to UMKC to deliver the commencement address for the School of Law in 2008. The Fehrs’ son, David, is also an alumnus – a 2008 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences Master of Fine Arts program.


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