Wouldn’t it be lovely to have employers actively want to hire you? You know, rather than the sweaty groveling most of us do whenever we find ourselves falling through a “gap in employment,” a slightly less embarrassing version of the Blow Job Guy from the Fyre Festival documentary. It’s a terrible feeling when you know you’ll have to prostrate yourself at the feet of whichever middle manager holds the key to your next meal — a feeling, of course, your average superstar athlete never has to bother with. (Aliens walk among us, and they’re playing professional sports.)
The best recent example: New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis. As soon as he made it known (through his agent and an amenable basketball journalist who then broke the news on Twitter) that he wouldn’t be re-signing with the team in 2020, all 29 other NBA teams stood at attention. After all, this could be their chance to land what sports fans like to call a “generational talent” — someone with so much skill and raw athletic prowess that he or she only comes around once in a lifetime. In the surreal, money-soaked world of professional sports, it’s the owners and front-office executives who are the proverbial “blow job guy,” fully prepared to do what it takes.
This is such an inversion of our day-to-day reality that it seems like science-fiction. The typical wage slave is lucky to get a 401k, let alone have companies willing to surrender other valuable assets just to have you work there. Yet the L.A. Lakers, Davis’ most likely suitor prior to this afternoon’s trade deadline, were prepared to off-load almost their entire team to the Pelicans to guarantee just a season and a half of Davis ahead of his free agency period.
Overall, players are gaining more power in deciding their fates every day, making the differences between their lives and ours wider and wider. Admittedly, it might be hard to empathize with these men who can dictate terms to their bosses (and who are already bigger, stronger, faster and richer than the rest of us), but this phenomenon does point to a better, more fair way to understand our marketability as human beings.
Work continues to define much of our identity, but especially so for the traditional idea of masculinity. In the days of the heterosexual single-income household, the man was responsible for making enough money so that everyone else — namely, his wife and children — could eat and have a place to live. Being able to pay your bills and your taxes made you an upright, honest citizen. You had worth. Ego is inseparable from employment, and ego is bolstered by how much you earn, what your title is and if you have your own office.
But today, ego is even more crucial. Because you essentially have no one else to rely on but yourself. That is, the utopian fantasy of arcade games, beer on tap and wacky names for conference rooms popularized by companies like BuzzFeed and VICE is collapsing in on itself as they shed workers in order to sniff profitability. And so, the harsh reality many are waking up to is that even if you got to wear sweatpants to work and “ideate” from a bean-bag chair, you’re still as much of a disposable asset as your parents or their parents, or any of the faceless drones of yore who toiled in the beige sameness of a factory or office park.
Not so for Davis, though, the lanky baller colloquially known as “the Brow,” thanks to his unkempt eyebrows that just about touch in the middle of his head. Davis has countless teams (the Bucks, the Celtics and the Lakers amongst others) salivating at the idea of acquiring his services. Therefore, the Pelicans, realizing they’re on the verge of losing the most gifted player in the short history of their franchise, are demanding other teams mortgage their futures in order to win the Brow lottery.
In fairness, he’s worth it. What Davis can do on the basketball court is remarkable. He’s guaranteed to get you at least 20 points and 10 rebounds a game. Not to mention, at seven feet tall, he shouldn’t seem so graceful, shoot so well and remain so poised. In short, the Lakers are a playoff team with Anthony Davis. Without Anthony Davis, they’re mostly the team that lost 136-94 to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night, during which ruthless Pacer fans chanted, “LeBron is gonna trade you” at Laker small forward Brandon Ingram.
In other words, Davis’ value is clear. What’s not clear anymore is what value a normal human being who can’t dunk has for an employer. Still, just because a social media manager, mechanic or accountant can’t do anything quite on the level of a pro athlete, it doesn’t mean they don’t have worth.
And in a weird way, I believe Davis will help them find it. Because while he can exert the kind of leverage none of us can even begin to fathom, he’s proving an essential truth: Where you work should be as much a choice for you as for your employer.
First, though, we gotta stop chastising Davis. When we do, we’re scoffing at a very potent symbol of free will. The subtext — if it’s not so readily apparent as to be the actual text itself — is that we don’t truly value labor, self-determination or ourselves. Our hate for his success, freedom, wealth and confidence is merely an excuse to not to harness that strength for ourselves. After all, it’s easier to just go on being undervalued and unappreciated. When companies lay off 10 percent of their workforce, then threaten not to pay out unused time off, we shrug. Such is life under capitalism. Athletes, however, can express themselves freely because they have no fear. They cannot be replaced by putting up a listing on LinkedIn.
You can’t either, you just don’t know it yet.