August 23, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: You've probably seen the picture -- a little boy in the bleachers forlornly displaying a sign that reads: Please Don't Strike. The photo has been in practically every newspaper in the country, and so has the sentiment behind it. Opinion columns and news coverage alike have been as one note a proposition as we can recall. The consensus: for the sake of the game, the players should make big concessions to the owners. We ourselves don't disagree but we wonder if such naked advocacy represents, among other sins, a conflict of interest. Joining us now is syndicated columnist and ABC News commentator George Will, an author of a book about baseball, a fan, and a member of baseball's Blue Ribbon Panel on Economics. Will is also no stranger to the question of journalistic conflict. He once took heat for pundicizing on ABC about a Ronald Reagan speech he had helped the president prepare. George Will, welcome to OTM.
GEORGE WILL: Thank you. Glad to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: There have been a lot of complaints lately about the New York Times using its news column to flog a dove-ish position on a war with Iraq. But nobody seems to have noticed a far more widespread bit of editorial slanting against a baseball strike.
GEORGE WILL: Obviously the sports pages of the country don't want their main subject in August of each year to disappear, and that would be the baseball season. It's a particularly good season, and it's very hard for the people in the media, I understand completely, to find a reason of a dimension sufficient to justify a strike.
BOB GARFIELD:Now there clearly are structural problems in the game, and let's just for the sake of context talk about what the two positions in this potential work stoppage are. The owners believe that the ability of large market teams with vast local and regional cable revenues to essentially buy winning teams has destroyed the competitive balance in the game and put small market teams in competitive and financial jeopardy. So they're looking for mechanisms in a new contract to address this rich team/poor team imbalance.
GEORGE WILL: It's almost a paradox here. The union is fighting strenuously in defense of the status quo and particularly in defense of the Yankees' revenues and the right of the Yankees to spend however much they wish -- the Yankees particularly and a few other comparably blessed teams. The owners are advocating a more egalitarian economic arrangement -- more revenue-sharing and a competitive balance tax assessed on the very highest portions of the very largest payrolls of the very richest teams.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's go back to looking at the coverage. There just seems to be unanimity of opinion that in any event a strike could be catastrophic for baseball. What if it isn't? If there were a settlement, for example, the way there was in 1994 that basically perpetuated the status quo, it would just keep this issue alive and festering until we have to face yet another possible work stoppage. Isn't it possible that a strike, like a forest fire, will have some sort of cleansing effect?
GEORGE WILL: Well remember the major league attendance is not yet back to the 1994 levels, if you subtract the effect of new ballparks and some new franchises. It seems to me clear that baseball can no longer take for granted that fans will be as tolerant of work stoppages as they have been in the past.
BOB GARFIELD:Humor me and accept for a moment my proposition that maybe a strike to end all strikes would ultimately serve baseball by getting these problems out of the way once and for all. If this were a political matter and the coverage were as similarly uniform, and full of advocacy, wouldn't your blood pressure be going up?
GEORGE WILL: I suppose it would. On the other hand, there is no reason -- zero -- to believe that this 9th work stoppage in 30-some years would produce what the other 8 have not, which is a rational economic system.
BOB GARFIELD:As long as I'm holding people's feet to the fire, I may as well grab your shoes as well. You set forth your arguments on this subject, but you were speaking as someone who yourself served on the commissioner's blue ribbon panel to investigate the future of baseball and the labor situation and now you're arguing the case in your column. Should I be queasy about that?
GEORGE WILL: No, I think what you've detected is that George Will agrees with George Will, and that's really not a news bulletin. Having spent 18 months studying baseball's economic and coming to completely independent conclusions on our own with no guidance whatsoever from major league baseball, it would be peculiar if, having done that, I now changed my mind!-- and the, the other 3 members changed their minds! We meant what we said then and now.
BOB GARFIELD:Yeah, I understand that, but for example--although I presume you, you know, you voted for George Bush -- you wouldn't have worked on his campaign would you?
GEORGE WILL: I fail to see the-- connection. I was not working for major league baseball. We were told to go out and come to an independent judgment and we did. Got it?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I reckon I got it. All right, well listen, thank you very much. I appreciate it. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
GEORGE WILL: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: George Will is a syndicated columnist, a former member of baseball's blue ribbon commission and a commentator for ABC News. [MUSIC]