On Monday, Ray Rice was fired. After an initial decision to suspend the Baltimore Ravens’ running back for two games earlier in the summer, the National Football League revised its decision to indefinite suspension after TMZ published a video leaked to them showing, not merely its aftermath, but the actual moments of horrible violence Rice committed against his now-wife Janay. Today, the Associated Press disclosed that, contrary to their claims, the NFL had this video in their possession since April. The NFL, for the moment, denies this is so.
Maybe it’s true. But either way this video clearly existed, and if the NFL didn’t have it, it was not out of an inability to procure it but an affirmative desire not to possess it, to see what it contained, to be forced to expel an exceptional talent from a team that won the Super Bowl just the year before last. This incident is horrifying, despicable, and dispiriting for a tangled myriad of reasons; but one thing it clarifies is that there is a rot in the heart of American professional sports, and it is a rot with only one solution — full and complete public ownership.
The reasons such a nationalization (for lack of a better term) of American sports — centrally, the big four sports leagues, the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB, as well as all their teams and other properties — is not just desirable but necessary are manifold and interweaving. They are economic, political, social, and even spiritual. I will attempt to tackle them in as organized a fashion as possible, but especially since I already do not believe in clear or obvious delineations between these various spheres of human life, I will move in an order that may be primarily guided by emotional sense.
I will begin, though, with cold hard economics. Sports leagues are natural monopolies. Barriers to entry are extremely high, and like other natural monopolies such as utilities, increased competition often means doubling or tripling investment to chase roughly the same quantity of revenue. The XFL cost at least $50 million ($67 million adjusted for inflation) to start up and likely much more, and its failure was instructive. Fundamentally, it was competing against a well-resourced, deeply-entrenched incumbent, and could not offer top-tier talent. That so few competitors of any substance have broached taking on the major leagues in the decades they have been dominant economic, social, and political institutions is in-and-of-itself evidence that competing against these leagues is inherently all-but-doomed. Admissions to spectator sports in the United States alone totalled $22.3 billion in 2013, which doesn’t include the additional billions from television rights and merchandise. Even excepting the MLB’s exemption from certain antitrust laws, one has to imagine that, were it possible for a competitor to profitably challenge the dominant leagues for a slice of that fortune, they would. But alternative leagues would offer poorer players, poorer officiating, and a lack of the earned history that builds the kind of devotion that keeps fans returning year after year — not to mention a concerted effort by the existing leagues to destroy them wholesale.
In other realms of life, natural monopolies are regulated, or at the very least the topic is up for discussion. In sports, however, not only are leagues not regulated, they are bathed with public subsidy of all kinds. The most obvious and widely condemned are the vast giveaways to support ever larger and grander stadia, not merely at staggering opportunity costs but at the cost of the neighborhoods which house the facilities themselves, which in all but the rarest and most careful cases tend to laughably contradict the eager promises of economic development by politicians and team flakes, instead leaving hollow neighborhoods in their wake. But these modern monuments are just the tip of a much larger iceberg of public funds vacuumed by the oligarchs atop the rapidly-narrowing hierarchy of professional sports. Municipal resources and cooperation devoted to propping up teams add up rapidly, everything from crooked land deals to arrange for stadia to police officers managing traffic in and out of games or inevitably dealing with rowdy fans. Broadcasting is another — the various waves and tubes that bring sports into the homes of millions are either public property or implicitly or explicitly supported by regulation (or lack thereof). Taxation is another — the NFL and NBA are, hideously, non-profit trade associations and thus exempt from taxes; the MLB was until 2007, when it decided it preferred opacity to filing an increasingly-embarrassing 990.
In each of these cases sports leagues are able to use the unique nature of their monopoly power, just as real yet much more flexible than laying miles of underground pipes, to create a network of dependencies, each one reliant for funds and support of leagues and teams to justify their positions — networks, mayors, and secondary and tertiary business owners increasingly need the continued patronage of national leagues or local teams to stay afloat, and each is helpless before threats to vacate existing obligations should a new stadium not be built, or a more favorable broadcast contract be signed. In each case that public or semi-public moneys and resources flows into these leagues, there is a corresponding relationship of peonage on which the pyramid of professional sports relies. Watch local officials, egged on by local media and local businesses, flail in panic every time a team threatens to vacate for more lucrative waters — if you can stand to.
By far the largest and most corrosive of these dependencies is our university system. Almost always exempt from taxation when not themselves public entities, our nation’s colleges and universities function in all but name as subordinate leagues to the professionals atop the pyramid. These leagues are in many ways even grander exploitations of public trust, and of socioeconomically vulnerable populations, than the professional leagues themselves, but they are also fiercely codependent with those same leagues. Public resources in monumental quantity are shoveled into the zero-sum activity of talent discovery, for which the schools and their administrators and faculty are handsomely compensated and increasingly dependent, but for which the laborers themselves are paid with nothing but an education in-kind — an education that is more often than not a perfunctory justification for their presence on campus, providing no skills or knowledge to equip athletes in the overwhelming probability that their collegiate athletic career will fail to lead them to a career in the big leagues.
Athletics are an unusual case in our society because they are one of the few fields in which almost all observers would agree that success truly is overwhelmingly driven by merit; and further that a necessary-if-not-sufficient condition of that merit is natural talent, for which no amount of training or socialization can substitute. Nevertheless, the cost of identifying and training this talent to perform at a level competitive with other professional athletes is enormous and entials, frankly, an enormous amount of waste — the opportunity costs of the time and resources spent discovering which few dozen of the tens or hundreds of thousands of youth who this year have put on their first helmet or glove, skates or high-tops, are staggering, and despite frequent protestations to the contrary, the skills, knowledge, and socialization gained through extended participation in sport in school, from elementary to university, are often useless in modern society, or at the very least somewhere between equally and vastly less useful than the skills, knowledge, and socialization gained through other extracurricular activities, activities with essentially no meaningful financial or institutional support compared to sports. The athletic experience, especially as one gets older and moved into more competitive spheres, may even be counterproductive. Locker rooms, especially but not only male locker rooms, are potent incubators of some of the worst in society and humanity — homophobia, xenophobia, racism, exclusivity, aggression, militarism, unthinking hierarchicalism, and of course, misogyny. For every athlete who comes away from a locker room with positive memories of camaraderie and cooperation, many more likely come away bullied and scarred, damaged and ready to inflict damage on others.
The NFL is an extreme but clarifying case. Approximately 60,000 students at any given time are playing NCAA football. These individuals, disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged corners of our society, are immersed in the toxic environment of the university-athletic complex — a hierarchy of corruption and blind fealty that is precisely the type prone to the sort of scandal witnessed at Penn State — and sent out to collide their bodies against others, day after day, perhaps for years. They will receive not a dollar in fungible wealth to their name for doing so, and fewer than one in fifty will play a single day in the NFL — yet how many will find themselves with lifelong damage to mind, body, or soul from the experience?
In the greatest irony, the very rarity and irreproducibility of athletic talent makes players zero-sum resources that, as they emerge from the vast many as one of the elite few, causes them to be lavishly pampered and zealously protected, living lives without reproach or accountability. Your average NFL player is more likely to be penalized for harmless antics on the field than actual violence off the field. This lasts as long as a player is productive, after which they are effectively discarded. A few end up on television, the rest are trotted out occasionally for interviews, signings, local events — presuming they can still walk and speak.
The sum effect of all of this is to create a vast and complex network of corruption, venal dependency, and exploitation, in which the labor of hundreds of thousands of athletes and the funds of millions of fans, and beyond that every American citizen, is sucked away as efficiently as possible to be divvied up among a handful of oligarchs — the purest of rentiers who simply collect tremendous rents and produce no new innovation or value — whose pyramid of wealth resembles nothing more than Bronze Age temple economies, in which public power, private industry, and religious authority were fused into monumental institutions which touched, if not dominated, almost all of society. Our systems of public finance, public justice, and public management of public or quasi-public resources are all compromised by these leagues and their enmeshing into the fabric of American life. The tentacular totality of the rot at the top reaches all the way down into thousands of local schools, creating vacuums of accountability and undermining the very purpose of these systems — think of every high school student whose learning was hobbled due to lack a sleep, a lack driven by early start times to accommodate…after-school sports.
This all works because sports play a vital social function. Beyond the genuine value they do provide to participants, at least before those participants become nearer to the toxic core of the industrial sports complex, they play a key role in modern social cohesion that should not be underestimated or dismissed by intellectuals who puzzle over why Americans can memorize batting averages yet know so little about geopolitics. Sports are our common denominator, the thing so many of us might have in common with so many others with whom we might share so little. In almost every conversation I’ve witnessed or participated in between American males from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds, sports inevitably arises as a topic into which all can join, a lingua franca in which all knowledge and opinion is equally privileged and in which all have an equal emotional and spiritual stake. The rise of city-branded teams alongside the increasing urbanization of America is not a coincidence — as we found ourselves in strange new metropoli surrounded by strangers with different histories, religions, and even languages, we all latched on to what we could share. No matter what else, if you and I are from the same city, we likely root for the same team (or share a passionate but collegial rivalry between neighboring teams). As traditional social bonds dissolved or decayed, sports were there; as American cities evolve, often towards homogeneity, teams are repositories of distinct identities, not just in their names but often in their mascots, merchandise, and arena traditions and concessions. As Americans go to college, move from one city to another, and increasingly meet people from different backgrounds, sports is something that can break ice, forge bonds, and power not just pairings but repeated larger groupings of people essential to human societies. This is the element that makes professional sports teams so anticompetitive above-and-beyond those found in an economics textbook. You could find any forty good baseball players and bring them to Boston and call them Boston’s team, but only the Red Sox are the Red Sox and only Fenway is Fenway. If you don’t have that, you have nothing; if you have that, you have everything.
Yet it is this precise confusion between public identity and private gain that makes our social and spiritual reliance on sports so dangerous. There is an irreconcilable contradiction between our love of, and need for, sports, and the fact that the overwhelming share of the material wealth poured dollar-by-dollar by fans of every class and creed finds its way into the pockets of fewer men — and they are almost always men, rich, white, and old — then could fill even the bleachers at your average Little League game. It is the central and perhaps even vital role that sports plays in our social fabric that allows for the popular defense of these leagues and teams even as they inevitably corrode everything that comes too close — the neighborhoods bulldozed, the public channels of information corrupted, the education system rendered helplessly dependent, and the minds and bodies of players — and, most tragically, often those closest to them as well.
Fortunately, the solution to all this is obvious; unfortunately, it is unlikely to transpire, at least not without both major blows to the leagues specifically and a broader transformation in American values and attitudes more generally. The irony of this is that there is, of course, living proof that nationalization of professional sports can not only work but flourish; it sits in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city of scarcely a hundred thousand, yet home to one of professional sports’ most successful franchises. The Green Bay Packers are profitable; they win (two of the 28 Super Bowls in my lifetime); and they are ‘owned’ by 360,584 fans who receive no pecuniary consideration, nor the possibility of such consideration, from their shares — only the right to hold the team accountable and have direct input into its fate.
Municipal or cross-municipal corporations exist across America and, though not without their problems, they generally work, certainly well enough to dispel any reason to think they are inherently doomed to failure. Whether structured as a metropolitan authority or placed directly in the hands of citizen shareholders, for professional sports teams to be essentially public property easily passes any potential test of feasibility one could imagine. It is also the only way to permanently bring sports teams and leagues — which are today essentially public institutions being operated purely for private benefit — into alignment with the interests of the public who fund them, support them, and should have every right to hold them accountable directly. Until then, expect the endless litany of scandals to continue unabated — doping, abuse of players, abuse by players, abuse by coaches and other officials, racism, exploitation of public funds, the cover-up and the protection and the facilitation of criminal and vile behaviors of all kind, and any more you care to imagine. The only way to fix sports is to make sports work for the fans and for the people — and the only way to do that is to make them truly ours.
PS: I am well aware that the NHL, NBA, and MLB have teams in Canada. This is a purely logistical obstacle, and one that, in the event broad ‘nationalization’ occurred, would be easily rectified. There’s no reason Toronto can’t own its teams, too.