Billionaire team owners should be taking care of arena workers during the sports shutdown

Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs talks to reporters at the U.S. Hockey Hall Of Fame InductionPhoto by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The question isn’t whether team owners can pay their employees, but whether they will.

Just as these scary times have exposed the flawed and unequal nature of our society, they have also shed light on human nature. We’ve been to make a decision between selfishness and compassion, the latter being a necessary mode of existence for surviving such a global catastrophe.

Among those being tested are the billionaires who own the sports teams that we enjoy. In this time of financial and medical uncertainty, these owners are being forced to make decisions on how to treat the people who work for their teams and their team’s stadiums, especially those who now find themselves in a delicate financial situation with work suspended. Do the owners continue paying the workers and maintaining their benefits, or do the billionaires take different measures to reduce costs?

There have been a few owners and even players who have stepped up to the occasion to help workers who had given so much to their teams. Some did so only after players stepped up first. The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, publicly toyed with the idea of reducing the salaries of their employees and backtracked after public backlash and being shamed by Joel Embiid. Other NBA owners who were reportedly on the fence about their own decisions looked at the Sixers’ situation for direction.

Some owners, like Jeremy Jacobs, the owner of the Boston Bruins and chairman of Delaware North, which owns and operates TD Garden in Boston, have decided instead to immediately place 68 of their full-time staff on temporary leave. After the first of April, 82 full-time employees will have their salaries reduced indefinitely.

What the Sixers and the owners who followed them in the right direction made clear was these teams and owners can cover for these employees. They have the money to do so. After all, they’re billionaires. The question isn’t if it’s possible to help out the lower-wage workers but whether the owners will do so in a time of crisis. It’s less of a problem of what they can legally do, whether it’s within their right to reduce salaries and place people on leave, and more about whether they will show their employees they care about them. So many owners across various sports have failed this test.

Owners, billionaires, deciding not to look after their employees isn’t that surprising. Outside of the context of sports, many rich people have decided instead to abandon their workers, with some fleeing to their private bunkers until this pandemic is over. But sports has always been positioned as something better than the rest of the world. This was supposedly a bubble where teams represented a family, where people could come together and be connected by this central point, and know that their support and work was part of a greater community. If society failed to give people that fulfillment from being part of something greater, teams were supposed to do that. And those workers, as much as the fans and players, were supposed to be part of that family.

What many of us, especially employees of those teams, are learning is the idea of family for owners like Jacobs is simply a ruse used during times of steadiness to maximize their profit. The relationship only goes one way. It’s easy to valorize the idea of a team when times are good and the money is flowing, but it seems the second a crisis hits and the workers are now the ones who need help, that idea of family disappears. Emotionality, familiarity, makes way for legality and the economics of reducing costs.

After this crisis is over, the lessons learned during these times will stick with us forever. So much has been made clear as this virus overwhelms and unravels countries and institutions around us. We have seen who among us are the heroes and who are the parasites. We have seen who, given the chance to help their employees survive and potentially make it to the other side, have decided extending that help just isn’t worth the small financial hit. Hopefully, they will never again be able to convince the world they are anything more than they have shown themselves to be.