Luke DeCock: For sports teams, like Hurricanes, special position means a higher standard

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Whether the email the Carolina Hurricanes sent to employees Wednesday afternoon was poorly worded or team executives were reversing course Wednesday night, the end result is the same. After telling their employees that they would be on unpaid time off if they didn’t have any vacation or personal time to use — and providing instructions on how to file for unemployment — the Hurricanes have now committed to making sure everyone still gets paid while their offices are closed next week.

Which is the important thing.

Businesses everywhere are unavoidably shuttering their doors and laying off or furloughing employees in the face of unprecedented societal and economic upheaval at the hands of the coronavirus, especially in the hospitality industry. A sports team, even more than some restaurants or hotels, has no customers.

But a sports team is unlike any restaurant or hotel. In most towns, there’s one team. There’s no consumer choice. You’re either on board or you’re not. No one insists people keep eating at a restaurant with a sub-.500 sanitation score. No one is told it’s their duty as a patron to stay at a hotel 41 nights a year whether it’s run well or not.

Pro sports franchises regularly make those requests of their customers, demanding loyalty from their fans through thick and thin. Tickets aren’t any cheaper in a rebuilding year (or years). Supporters who decide to stop watching a persistently losing sports team are branded as fair-weather fans. Fealty is demanded, at all times.

Meanwhile, pro franchises ask for public funds for arenas, for facility upgrades, for support under the justification that they are a civic good, a public amenity, something worth supporting for the good of the community.

That’s not wrong: A major league sports team can be a tremendous source of civic pride and a driver of economic development. But it’s a two-way street.

To whom much is given, much will be required.

If pro sports franchises with billionaire owners are going to position themselves as worthy recipients of public funds, if they’re going to demand the loyalty of their fans even during periods of chronic mismanagement and losing, then they have an obligation to do the right thing that goes beyond any restaurant or hotel.

And in times like these, as we all struggle with COVID-19 and its wide-ranging implications, that means making sure they’re ahead of the curve in terms of taking care of their employees. The Hurricanes did the right thing with their part-time arena employees, who received desperately needed checks Thursday for the six hockey games that weren’t played in March.

Now it remains incumbent upon them to do the right thing with their full-time employees. They may not be able to support them forever, if this drags on and the NHL remains paused for not weeks but months. But other pro franchises have pledged to continue to fully support their employees in the short term. The New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers quickly backed off after initially cutting salaries. At the Dallas Stars, top executives took pay cuts to make it easier to continue to pay workers. The Green Bay Packers, who have no owner, donated $1.5 million to relief efforts in Wisconsin.

Insisting Hurricanes employees use their vacation time now certainly treads a very fine moral line, but it does ensure a paycheck. Hurricanes president Don Waddell said the policy will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis, but at some point there will be more than six employees lacking vacation or personal time, the number Waddell said will be paid next week despite the language in the memo. A Federal relief plan might ease some of the burden, but who knows when that might be in place.

Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon may shut down other consumer-facing businesses and lay off employees, and that’s his prerogative, but a sports team isn’t like any other business. For better or worse, it’s like buying a family, with rewards that aren’t necessarily monetary and obligations that aren’t necessarily subject to economic rationale.

Pro sports franchises ask a lot of their fans and a lot of their employees, who often work long hours for less compensation than they could get for doing the same jobs in other industries. It’s fair for them to ask as much of the Hurricanes. In good times and bad.


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