Who are we rooting for again?
Let’s play pretend.
Imagine the employment status of the workers at your local grocery store being national news. Their salaries, employment history, and job performance are public information, conveniently displayed in a box in the top right corner after an internet query. Every day, the worthiness of their continued employment is debated to the delight of large audiences. Besides dissecting their physical and mental attributes (e.g., ‘that stocker is a workhorse’ or ‘the cashier tries hard but lacks the mental capacity necessary for the position’), the personal lives of these employees are also freely debated. Discussions of their friends, families, faith; analysis of their diet, exercise and vice; speculation as to the effect that death or dissolution of a marriage might have on the employee — these are all fair game. After all:
How can that employee bag groceries efficiently if his mind is on his brother’s murder trial? The store would be better off firing him, he’s not worth the baggage; did you hear about that young guy two towns over? He’s a beast! Devout Christian knows nothing but bagging and Jesus. We really need to stop paying so much money for these older cashiers, they are good for a year or two but as soon as they turn 40 they fall apart. If I was the owner, I’d fire the whole crew; all of these prima donnas, taking their fat paychecks and for what? We are the worst grocer in the county. And that assistant store manager is getting paid way too much, what does she do? Sit in her office and browse the internet all day? I’d kill for that job, she doesn’t know how lucky she is; she should just take her paycheck and shut up!
I’m going to assume that you do not talk like this about the employees at your local grocery store. At the risk of being presumptuous, I might also assume that you would find such coverage to be inappropriate, unseemly even. So how is it that it is not just a common, but a celebrated aspect of our nation’s coverage of the business of sport to so flippantly discuss the livelihood of an entire class of people — to freely, openly, and casually decide how much each individual is worth. And with such certainty too! All the while ignoring some basic fundamental truths that would apply to, and be considered in conjunction with, any discussion relating to employers and employees in any other field?
Well the answer to that is obvious and simple: We like watching football. I like watching football.
America’s various professional sports leagues are thriving industries that consistently generate billions of dollars in revenue. The sole product produced by this industry, marketed to and consumed by an eager public, is the performance of athletic competition. The employees, the performers in these athletic competitions, are some of, if not the, most extraordinarily talented individuals that the world has to offer — combining both rare genetic gifts with an unparalleled training regime that develops their skills to near perfection. The owners, those who control the means and manner of production, are some of the wealthiest individuals in the world. Almost exclusively white males (aside from Michael Jordan, a Pakistani American and a guy with the last name Moreno), there is about a fifty percent chance that they inherited most if not all of their wealth (i.e., it was a product of the lottery of birth, owing nothing to the individual talents, efforts or labor of said owner).
Their pursuit of profit is enabled by federal, state and local governments, whom consistently gift every corporate advantage under the sun to the owners. Every day, the public bears witness to the labor disputes between owners and employees. We advocate for the termination of an individual’s employment, urge early retirement, criticize job performance, and concern ourselves with the ownership’s allocation of resources and expenditure on labor — our concern, of course, being that the owner might be overpaying his employees for their services. And every few years, when a dispute between the employees and owners threatens the timely delivery of the product, we inevitably side with the owners, concluding that the employees are compensated more than enough already, that they should stop complaining and get back to making that damn product.
This is insane.
The hypothetical grocery worker as subject of national scrutiny only scratches the surface because there is no industry which affords ownership the unbelievable advantages given to professional sports owners. The fact is, sports, like the rush of having laborers perform tasks for you with a tap on a smartphone, create an atmosphere that blinds individuals to the underlying employee/employer relationships that produce our entertainment or tip-free taxi ride. Our prejudices, preconceived notions, and envy have created fertile ground for capital and ownership to once again convince a nation of workers to support their cause.
But, I’d like to suggest — propose, perhaps — that we can still enjoy our sport without disregarding such essential rights, that we, as a nation of employees, would never in any other industry allow to be so easily displaced. And that if we (again, employees in every other industry) care about our rights as the producers of product, content, or service with which our employer profits, we should care about the employment situation of the professional athlete. It is a magnified, publicized, and dramatized display of employer-employee relations. We all have a much larger stake in the outcomes then we may realize. Because what occurs on our television sets, in our casual conversation, and in the executive offices overlooking the playing field is emblematic of many of the ills plaguing modern American employment. The professional athlete, and those who would purport to represent them, is about as well equipped as anyone to advocate for his rights. Theirs may or may not be an employment standards bellwether, but they certainly deserve our attention — and, I would argue, our support — against those who would undermine, override, and avoid fair employment practices and free market capitalistic principles.
What We See
Our interpretation of the athlete’s employment status is influenced by two major factors: (1) our views regarding the athlete’s job duties and compensation and (2) our personal and social investment in the product produced by the athlete.
First, the athlete as employee: In our incredibly diverse and at times fractured country, an astoundingly high number of children share the same exact career goal: professional athlete. This attitude informs the perception we have as adults. We consider the athlete lucky to be able to have such a job, and even luckier to be able to receive whatever compensation he or he (sorry, not a typo) receives for this job. The athlete as employee is viewed as playing a game, not performing a service, so we envy, idolize, and denigrate him accordingly. The employee-athlete is overpaid, at least in part, because it is suggested that others would be more than willing to perform the job for free.
These standards, however, are not applied to other industries. We don’t determine salaries based upon the coolness of one’s job, or how many people may be willing to engage in such activity for free. Take the astronaut, another dream job of many a youth. When NASA is hiring, should the astronaut work at a discount because so many of us would be willing to float around in space for free? It has even become popular for those with means to pay for the privilege! Are our nation’s most able astronauts’ compensation reduced because this dude who got rich selling prepaid phone cards in the 90s is willing to pay big bucks for a space ride? This would be absurd. Astronauts are paid what someone is willing to pay them. The astronaut being the only one capable of performing the job of astronaut, prepaid phone card guy’s offer would do little to affect contract negotiations.
Likewise, your buddy Tony’s willingness to squeeze into baseball pants for free doesn’t devalue an actual athlete’s economic worth. This is a basic tenet of capitalism and free market principles. An individual should be paid what one is willing to pay him, there should be free and open competition for his services, and he may choose freely among those who desire his services. This, of course, doesn’t exist in the world of professional sports, but it should at least be considered whenever one has an inkling to suggest an athlete is overpaid. We do not assign salaries based on the worthiness of the activity, the public benefit is not accounted for, nor do we give our employers a discount because what we are doing happens to be fun. We pay what someone is willing to pay.
The salaries also aren’t all that high. Respectively. What once was deemed outlandish, a sentiment held openly only by Scott Boras and his heirs, is now gaining traction among non-interested parties. Both in terms of their overall economic value and according to their Collective Bargaining Agreements, their salaries are proportional to the revenue generated by their labor. In fact, even without these considerations, they can seem reasonable. Take for example a National Football League (“NFL”) employee-athlete. According to this fun chart the average NFL employee-athlete earns $6.7 million in his career. In a 43 year career that would be a bit over $155,000 per year. How dare I break that down into a 43 year career when the NFL employee-athlete earns that amount in, on average, 3.5 years? Well this is how I dare:
This is a highly specialized job that requires an individual devote himself almost entirely to the job from the time he is a teenager. After completing a multi-year unpaid internship (a.k.a. unpaid employment with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”)) thousands of hopefuls try out for one of the 1,856 or so jobs available in this industry. Even after securing a job and signing a “contract,” the individual’s employer is free to terminate his employment at any time. This highly specialized industry is dependent upon the free labor provided by thousands of individuals who will never receive a dime for their service. The risk in pursuing this endeavor is enormous and unique to this industry. An aspiring lawyer who cannot pass the bar can still work in the field but an aspiring professional football employee-athlete who does everything but earn a paycheck is left without such alternatives. The risk, the contribution to the product as an unpaid employee and the specialization that the job requires all support a conclusion that payment to the employee be viewed with the idea that this is the individual’s life work. The owners and consumers demand that our employee-athletes devote their entire lives to making a good product, then when they are finished and broke we ask why they didn’t plan their lives better. This is absurd, cruel, and unjust.
Who gets to decide how much money an individual in a particular profession should make? An individual’s earning capacity usually increases until retirement. The inverse is true of an athlete, so shouldn’t their contracts be structured accordingly? Did you know a Solutions Architect makes over five million dollars in his career? Do you know what a Solutions Architect is? The author doesn’t (or didn’t), but he does know that it’s an easier job to get than professional athlete. Instead of focusing on the dollar figures, I would implore you to look at the employment relationship. What seems like an outrageous sum might not seem so outrageous when you see what the owner is earning or what sacrifices and risks are involved. Professional sports owners, as will be discussed shortly, are the rare business owners that own without risk. They actually, have the opposite of risk, if such a thing is possible, whereby the failure of their product for the product’s advertised purpose can actually lead to greater profitability. They actually have Jeffrey Loria. They are like banks that are too big to fail without the societal benefits offered by banks. How is this possible?
Well it is that sweet, sweet product. We are deeply, emotionally, and irrationally invested in it. Our view is distorted. Our desire for our locally produced product to outperform the other products is so intense as to influence us to accept and advocate for the most incredibly abhorrent practices. It is the opium of the constituency. It’s so powerful, in fact, that not only does it keep the masses numb to the injustices of life, but it causes scores of seemingly intelligent men and women to talk about the injustices of sport instead (wait a second…). The powerful effect of this emotional investment is perhaps best illustrated in an example.
One of the most egregious practices in professional sport is the draft. Under this system, after an employee’s mandatory one to three year unpaid internship, an employer gets to pick the employee he wants to work for him or him-
(Quick aside on the unpaid internship: The National Basketball Association (“NBA”) has, quite amazingly, prevented its employee-athletes from earning a living once they have reached the age of majority. Although the employee is qualified for the job, the league denies them an opportunity to earn a living until they reach the age of 19 (the current commissioner would like to see that raised to 20). Why? Well, for starters, it placates the NCAA, the NBA’s $800-plus million dollar a year earning farm system, by providing them with at least one year of free labor for their “non-profit.” Which is fascinating in and of itself, as the NCAA openly lobbies for a rule that implicitly acknowledges the financial benefit to a college or university of retaining the athletic services of a “student” who is guaranteed to drop out before earning a degree. The age requirement also serves to repress wages by preventing the employee from negotiating contracts during the time when he has the most leverage. It is a farce. And it might even be a racist farce. The NFL, for its part, promises its free labor camp that it won’t take their best until they are “college juniors.” Major League Baseball (“MLB”) at least pays their interns after they kidnap them from Latin America. America’s national pastime, ice hockey, permits its employees to earn money professionally at the age of 18)
The employee can accept the terms of the deal offered him by this employer or… well there isn’t really an alternative. While, technically, the potential employee could refuse to work, at a minimum, he would have to wait another year before starting the process anew. In some cases he wouldn’t even be allowed to resume his unpaid internship during this time. And realistically, the decision not to work for the only employer he is allowed to work for would be viewed by the other potential employers as a mark on his character. He would be labeled difficult and unless he happened to be one of the most exceptional of performers, his ability to earn a living in his chosen profession would be seriously jeopardized. All because he wanted to work for an employer of his own choosing. All because he didn’t want to live in Cincinnati (just kidding Cincinnati, we all know the worst city to live in is wherever people openly support Tom Brady).
Obviously, there is a greater good. The right of these employees to earn a living wouldn’t be restricted so severely unless it was absolutely necessary. And it is absolutely necessary. Because, you see, the draft allows the employer who delivered an inferior product to have the advantage of securing the employment of the most promising employee at a rate that will almost certainly prove to be less than the fair market value of this employee’s services if he were allowed to freely choose his employer. And this, of course, is important, not just because it rewards the employer who produces the worst product, often because of an unwillingness to pay employees fair market value, but because it increases the odds that the inferior product will be able to compete with the superior ones. If this seems like a ridiculous reason to force an employee to work for someone he doesn’t want to work for, I’ll translate the justification into fan-speak: The draft is necessary because even though your team sucks this year, at least they get a high draft pick.
The truth is that the draft, with its inherent appeal to the consumer, is one of the most ingenious methods of wage-fixing in American history. The ratio between evilness and positive public opinion is almost one to one. They’ve actually turned this open-air collusion into a televised event. The employees, at least the top 5 percent or so, are even willing participants. The unquestioned principle that an employer has the rights to the services of a professional employee-athlete in accordance with the employer’s respective failure within the industry is so ingrained in our culture and our psyche that ‘being drafted’ seems like an honor — we would laugh at an alternative:
-No draft? What, so the best employees are just going to go to the team that pays them the most?
-That can’t work, then the teams with the most money will have the best teams.
-Well, yes, the most successful businesses would tend to thrive in a system that rewarded the most successful business-
-Well that’s not fair. All of the most talented workers will just go to major cities.
-Huh? Anyway, the whole industry will collapse if there are only two or three good teams.
-I don’t think so.
The author is under the belief, delusional as he may be, that if the owners in professional sports were forced to behave like owners in other industries (excluding banks and political parties obviously), professional sports would survive. Others have explored the possibility of a world in which professional sports employers weren’t allowed to conspire to artificially limit wages, but these pieces are usually premised on the assumption that the economic failure of a professional sports franchise or the lack of competitive balance would be the equivalent of a king and conqueror riding a white horse. The author does not believe this apocalyptic scenario to be the case, but nonetheless wishes to assure you that he would not advocate for a libertarian overhaul that would degrade the economic value of the product. To the contrary, competitive balance, while not the natural law ownership makes it out to be, is quite effective at raising the overall value of the industry thus allowing more employees to earn more money. The author asks only that the employee-athlete’s place within this industry be analyzed without presuming that that which is must always be and that the viewing public’s fandom is an inalienable right.
What We Don’t See
The State of the American Union.
In 2011, the Executive Director of one of America’s most prominent unions “negotiated” a Collective Bargaining Agreement that gifted ownership 12 percent of annual revenue that had previously been set aside for employees. Persons with knowledge of the deal estimate that this will amount to a transfer of anywhere from $10 to $15 billion dollars over a ten year period from the employees to the owners. The executive director, whose ties to presidential power and business interests were seen as assets that compensated for the fact that he had no idea what he was doing, was re-elected not too long ago. Some who have analyzed the deal closely have concluded that the retention of power was the Executive Director’s primary goal, ahead of the welfare of those he would purport to represent, and that the curious structure of the deal makes sense when viewed in conjunction with the elections held for the position of Executive Director. The Executive Director’s previous experience was in Washington, D.C. He continues to direct business of questionable necessity to his old law firms while pocketing his 2.5 million annual salary.
This isn’t an outlier, however, but a trend. In 2011, in between trying to hire every member of his extended family, the Executive Director of the NBA’s player union managed to secure a deal that allowed his employees to lose about 7 percent of revenue that was previously allocated for their salaries. This is no small feat. More than any other sports league, the NBA is dependent on its marquee employees to deliver an entertaining product. Yet with full knowledge of the financial windfall that the owners were about to receive in the immediate future, this Executive Director managed to negotiate a pay decrease for the only 392 people in the entire world capable of doing this job. Extraordinarily impressive leadership.
Not to be outdone, the Executive Director of the NHL’s Players Association also handed 7 percent of the employee-athletes’ revenue back to the owners following a 2012 lockout. And this was negotiated by a guy who is actually good at his job. MLB isn’t much better in terms of apportioned salary. Plus their commissioner is willing to break federal laws and spend millions to make an employee look bad and punish him for jeopardizing the “integrity” of the sport (In this case jeopardizing the integrity of the sport means trying to excel at the sport after the owners of the sport decided the cost/benefit analysis in looking the other way while players excelled suspiciously no longer favored ignorance).
Does this story sound familiar? Why are we, as a nation of employees who rely very heavily on money, so insistent on providing the richest Americans with more of our money? How does this keep happening? Is it your fault because you DVR your favorite TV shows and steal movies online? Surely, the employee-athletes deserve some blame for their insistence on electing incompetent, corrupt, self-interested representatives. But how much blame do you or I deserve for electing incompetent, corrupt, self-interested representatives? We didn’t really have much of a choice did we? Some folks are senator’s sons; born to wave the flag; they’re red, white and blue. Other folk are forced to choose between not paid and underpaid, evil and compromised, the same or worse.*
The unfortunate truth is that this is business as usual in the landscape of modern American employment relations. Which is why it is unsurprising when the billionaire owners of sports corporations ask for and receive your money to support their for-profit enterprise, because this has been the modus operandi for large, profitable corporations for years. Our beloved data-driven analytics influence employers to view employees as disposable assets instead of human beings. The new ruling class, purportedly liberal as they are, is doing everything in their power to prevent their employees from questioning the status quo (they are deemed liberal largely because they support things like same-sex marriage. We need a new way of describing individuals who hold such beliefs because ascribing a liberal mentality to these ruthless, unapologetic capitalists seems unfair to the benevolent, philanthropic, ruthless unapologetic capitalists of days past. Perhaps we can just call people who believe in treating people equally as, I dunno, ‘not awful’?).
The contortions are impressive. And the stratification of society! Societal, wealth, and income inequality are so pervasive that even members of the upper middle class are beginning to recognize the deleterious effect of the widening chasm. Whether union membership can solve some of these woes or not is certainly debatable, but in times like this, it’s important to note that at a minimum, they are not the problem. And it should certainly give one pause for consideration when those with all of the wealth are willing to go to such extremes to prevent you from aligning yourself with similarly situated employees. The determination of what is best for you and your family should not be made by one who has a direct financial motivation to provide you with less.
So back to the “game.” What we see matters. It matters when we witness and support a moral hazard even if the victim is young, handsome, and richer (at least at this moment) than we will ever be. It matters because it is an example, a metaphor, and an instructional guide for societal values, achievement and success. It matters because it is there. Every day, every night, wherever we turn. I wouldn’t ask for your sympathy when a young man who has devoted his entire life to his career gets hurt on the job, ending his ability to ever earn a living in this industry before ever earning a legitimate paycheck. Nor do I expect you to care when an employer intentionally denigrates the product in order to pay an employee less money. But I do think we should view these for what they are.
For all of the atrocious practices committed in other industries, at least it can be said that the savings are often passed along to the consumer. The collective human suffering of thousands has given us cheap clothing, reasonably priced produce, and the ability to be driven from one part of town to the other part of town. Can the same be said of your consumption of the entertainment of sport? When the oft-injured safety gets cut before his bonus is due does a ticket to the event become cheaper? When your team finally gets under the salary cap will you finally be able to afford to take your family to the game? Now that the owners are getting a larger percent of the revenue can you view the game on television without being held hostage by your cable company?
Of course not. A loss for the employee-athlete is a gain for the plutocrats. It is not a gain for you and it is not, despite what ownership argues, necessary for the prompt delivery of a consumable product reasonably suited for its intended use. We are collectively drugged by the mistaken notion that ownership victory in a labor dispute benefits our team, and that our lives are enriched in some way, shape or form by our team’s success. But even accepting an emotional reward derived from team success as fact, the financial machinations of these publicly subsidized for-profit monopolies are decidedly not done to benefit your team. They are done to increase profit.
Profit for them, not you. And profit is a fine motivator. I don’t hate profit. But I do hate us gleefully encouraging those who have everything to take more and more from those who have less. I do think the public should give greater consideration to the interests it aligns itself with. I do think it’s important that we view a salaried employee as a salaried employee even if the job is cool, the pay is good, and the worker appears to have less difficulty in his romantic conquests (The manner and frequency with which the employee-athlete’s heightened potential for fruitful sexual conquests is discussed in the context of job benefits is disturbing, disrespectful and sad). And I do think we are capable of holding two separate ideas in our heads at once:
Yes, I like watching football. No, you are not more than a corporation that employs workers.
*This article was actually written before Hillary Clinton had officially announced her intention to run for president; when Donald Trump was just a buffoon in New York. The author did not intend to look back at that time with nostalgia.