A case could be made that Marvin Miller did more to rev up the Sports Industrial Complex than anyone in history. When he decided to represent Major League Baseball players as their union boss in 1966, salaries were scandalously low -- they had "grown" to $6,000 on average that year. And, worse, the "reserve clause" tethered a player to his team until the club saw fit to trade or release him.
Today, baseball players make an average salary of more than $3 million and, from Oliver Perez to Albert Pujols, they have considerably more leverage at the bargaining table. Not for nothing did Sports Illustrated once list Miller among the 10 most influential sports figures of the 20th century.
Still, Miller's profile is such that his phone number is listed in the Manhattan white pages. When he walks around his neighborhood on the Upper East Side, he does so unrecognized. As a matter of ritual, the Cerberus pack at the Baseball Hall of Fame declines to let him pass through the gates and acknowledge his contributions to the growth of the sport. Miller turns 94 this week. But suffice it to say that age has done little to diminish his opinions or passion. After following the Barry Bonds trial and NFL labor situation, he was kind enough to discuss what was on his mind with SI.com.
SI: Let's start with Bonds. You said that you saw this coming.
MM: I don't have a crystal ball. But when my wife was alive and the baseball players union agreed to random testing, I said to her, 'It's a terrible thing because someone is going to go to jail for this. The union doesn't realize that it's not baseball's job to do this kind of policing.'
SI: Go to jail for a positive test or for perjury?
MM: For perjury. People aren't going to give up careers just like that. And the worst part is -- and almost nobody understands this -- there isn't any scientific evidence, none, in all the world, that steroids have a magical influence that improves athletic performance.
SI: Come on...
MM: I want to emphasize this: It's not that I know that it does or doesn't [improve performance]. I don't. The point is, neither does anyone else. There's never been a scientific test.
SI: So, what's your take on what's going on in the courthouse in San Francisco?
MM: I hope Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are getting appropriate legal advice, because I will tell you: Given the fact that there is a complete lack of scientific fact about what steroids do or don't do, given the fact that there is no scientific evidence, it seems to me that the way to answer questions about the use of [steroids] is to paraphrase it before answering. Never answer yes or no I took steroids. Paraphrase: "To my knowledge, I have never taken anything that improves my performance." That's the truth. I don't see how you can convict someone of perjury based on that.
SI: Do you have regrets about the stance of the union on testing through the years?
MM: I have no regrets about the union's stand when I was there. I have decided regrets about the agreeing to random testing and paying no attention to the privacy rights. I want to emphasize: The President of the United States can't order random testing of an individual. The Congress can't. The attorney general can't. No mayor can. It's that the Constitution has holes in it: It doesn't prevent a private employer from doing it. But it does prevent a private employer from doing it unilaterally [that is, without collective bargaining] because it's a condition of work. In the final analysis, the union agreed to let a private employer do what the president of the United States can't do. That's what I object to. It's that simple.
SI: Are you surprised at how the NFL negotiations have played out so far?
MM: No, not really. I met [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith shortly after he was elected. I was impressed with him, his intelligence. He has a clear idea of what has to be done. He's aware of the history of complete company unionism. So I'm not surprised that the football players association has been handling itself very well. I don't know how it's going to turn out, but they've been handling themselves very well.
SI: What worries you?
MM: I don't think the public understands what's going on. I don't think the media, by and large, does, either. For example, from President Obama down, we get these clichés. "Oh, it's billionaires arguing with millionaires." Those are not the issues. What are the issues? No one is explaining it to the public. Not so long ago, the National Football League didn't know where its next dollar was coming from. It's now a money powerhouse like we've never seen. A $9 billion-a-year industry, and the top is nowhere to be seen yet. Its revenue is well in excess of baseball or hockey or basketball. They're sitting on top of the world..... And then, despite the $9 billion a year that comes in -- and every indication that there's more coming up -- they come and say we're going to have your salaries cut and we want to increase the amount of work you do, increase the season. In addition to being a bunch of hogs, it means that all the lip service about worrying about the disabilities is hogwash, because we're increasing the number of games you have to play now. In the most brutal of the team sports, yeah, that's going to improve [player] health. Why are they doing this?
On the other side of the table are the players. And this is what no one is getting across: In an industry where the employer is carting money, the players have the lowest salaries in any team sport in America, the lowest pensions, the worst collective bargaining agreement, the shortest careers, and the worst and most serious disability rate. That's what's on the other side of the table. And nobody is explaining that. And even Obama, when he gets asked, goes into cliché mode. "Oh, I think the owners and players are sufficiently capable of dividing up $9 billion." He contributes nothing to what's going on. In fact, he obscures it.
SI: Do you think the public perception of owners versus athletes -- management versus labor -- has changed much?
MM: It's the same.
SI: Really? You don't think the sympathies have swayed?
MM: The figures have changed. But if you asked a baseball fan [in the '60s] he'd say: "Union? Baseball players make three times what I make." He was making peanuts compared to what the revenue was, but the man was telling the truth....This is the kind of thing I run into now, long after I've retired: "Salaries are out of hand." I don't know what that means. Or: "It's a good thing players don't get small amounts of money anymore, but [enough is enough]." The problem is, no one explains it. We know that the players have become wealthy, but no one says that there's $8 billion in revenue. There's no mention of that, no mention of the fact that if you did a simple subtraction, revenue is $8 billion and player salaries were something like $3 billion. You only concentrate on one side of the table and you give people a false impression. And that's terrible, in my opinion. Just terrible.
SI: How do you stress unity when your membership might be starting to get restless or splinter?
MM: I would tell the players, "Even if I were the smartest man in the world (which I'm not) and even if I were the best negotiator in the world (which I'm not), we wouldn't have these gains unless there was complete unity and solidarity. That's the key. That's where you go. That's the power that moves the machine, not who you have as executive director."
SI: What do you make of decertification as -- for lack of a better word -- a tactic in a bargaining situation?
MM: Well, I never used it. But I never had to. Let me explain something about a salary cap: If a union agrees to a salary cap, like they did in football, in basketball, in hockey, and the union has to tell the truth to its membership, they would have to say this: "I have just made a tentative settlement and I want you to ratify this agreement, but before you do, [know] that it's going to result in lower salaries than you would have if the union disappeared tomorrow."
The only reason for a salary cap is that some of the employers in the industry want to pay more; and they're going to be prevented from paying more and raising the scale, by the union. The union, that collects dues from you as members, has now entered the fray on the side of management. "We're going to limit your salaries below the point where they would be if the union disappeared tomorrow." That's the truth.
SI: But it's collective bargaining. Isn't the union getting something else --
MM: No legitimate union could ever agree to a salary cap. In my mind, if a union did that, if would be grounds for decertification, for membership to go court. They were not representing their goal in the law: to improve the wages, hours and working conditions of its members.
SI: Regardless of what they might get in exchange for the cap?
MM: That's right. They were now on the side of management. When the people say, "How comes there's no salary cap in baseball?" that's why.
SI: In retrospect, what are you most proud of?
MM: Succeeding generations of players know so much more about trade unionism, solidarity and what it can produce than their predecessors did. I'm proudest of the fact that I've been retired for almost 29 years at this point and there are knowledgeable observers who say that this might still be the strongest union in the country. I think that's a great legacy.