Trade Winds

I thought tenure meant I could retire with the team that drafted me

Two trading cards of the author as an old and a young man
Courtesy of the author

Andre Drummond is in a funk. His coaches see it. Opposing teams see it. Anyone with a pair of eyeballs can see it. The trade chatter in recent weeks has crept into Drummond’s head.

Sports Illustrated, January 17, 2020

Less than an hour into the week of free agency, my ex-wife Dee tweeted me from Los Angeles to congratulate me on being traded to the Los Angeles Central University English Department for two assistant professors, a dean, and one adjunct-to-be-named-later. I wasn’t surprised. Still, I went to my department chair—I teach at the City University of New York’s Gowanus Canal Campus in Brooklyn—and he confirmed the news.

“Just taking orders, Harry, and my instructions were to get rid of sludge and inject some young blood into our program,” he said. “In addition to which, you didn’t have a no-trade clause in your contract.”

“But what am I, Marvin—just a piece of property to be bought and sold regardless of my wishes?”

“Exactly,” Marvin said.

“And wasn’t the reserve clause replaced by free agency?”

“Listen, Harry—we may all think of ourselves as free agents, but the courts have consistently ruled that it’s in the national interest to set aside the Dred Scott case and antitrust laws so that neither professional sports nor education are subject to the whims of the marketplace,” Marvin said. “And also, to be perfectly brutal, your salary left us no cap-and-gown space.”

“Cap-and-gown space?”

“Enrollments and graduation rates,” he said. “That’s what keeps our department in business, and our numbers have been slipping badly. For one 50-year-old professor we get two 25-year-old PhDs who will bring their phenomenally popular series of budget-saving online courses—‘Texts, Tweets, and You!’—to Gowanus.”

“But I’m the last faculty member left at Gowanus who actually teaches literature—who requires students to read novels and poems written before the 21st century,” I said. “And what happens if I refuse to go to LACU, and get the ACLU to take my case?”

“Don’t start getting acronymious with me, Harry! You do that and—bottom line—you’ll never teach again.”

My wife said if I wanted to be the Curt Flood of Academia, I could go for it, but she intended to invoke the equal-but-separate clause of our prenup.

When I arrived home, my wife, Beth, informed me that as soon as she read Dee’s tweet, she’d asked her lawyer to use the Setoff Adjustment clause of our prenup agreement to draw up a separation agreement for us so that I could live in LA with Dee until the end of the semester—without “unnecessary conflicts of prurient interest”—at which point, in the absence of a viable Qualifying Offer, LACU would probably buy me out or trade me.

Dee told Beth that by ridding themselves of two assistant professors, a young dean, and an adjunct-to-be-named-later, LACU could hire me short-term while giving themselves Luxury Tax space to expand the department, especially if, as seemed likely, they could package me with other faculty members and send me to a school that would gain salary space by writing off part of my Unguaranteed Remaining Salary, or having the state pick up a piece of my Veteran’s Reimbursement Adjustment, which, Gowanus informed LACU, was down to zilch because I’d borrowed heavily against its capital for a down payment on our Park Slope brownstone.

I told Beth that I was determined to protest, and she said that if I wanted to be the Curt Flood of Academia, I could go for it, but that she intended to invoke the equal-but-separate clause of our prenup. She did agree that to be able to actually trade people from team to team, or college to college, was indeed akin to slavery, though it was surely a measure of consolation to professional athletes to be wealthy slaves. But I didn’t have that luxury, she said.

“Look at the NBA, babe—and I’m not talking about the National Book Awards,” she said. If I wanted to increase my marketability, she suggested, I should find out which prizewinning East Coast writers had Waive-and-Stretch or Buyout Adjustment provisions in their contracts, and recruit them to join me on a Dream Team that could make a run at winning the annual National Writing Program Literary Poetry and Fiction Slam Championship, thereby increasing Strategic Negotiability for authors without SuperMax contracts.

Still, I told Beth, even if I was forced to accept an Unprotected Veteran’s Minimum that contained an Early Termination Option, and lost everything—job, salary, benefits, and travel allowance—the only thing that mattered to me was if she would still love me.

“Of course I’ll still love you,” she said. And then: “I’ll miss you …”

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Jay Neugeboren is the author of 23 books. His stories and essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and The New York Times and have been reprinted in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. His latest novel, After Camus, was published earlier this year.


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