Less Than Sporting
Reducing the exorbitant amounts paid to athletes and owners would help the average fan—and the government should do it.
The current pool of money that is devoted to sports is simply too large. Taking funds away from that pool is an essential step to recalibrating our social priorities. In the process, such government intervention would also end up benefitting the average sports fan. Surely the owners themselves can stand to lose money. By and large, the people who buy franchises are already wealthy many times over. Indeed, for many if not most owners, the team purchased is a kind of extreme luxury car, an emblem signifying a fortune so vast it can buy things with no practical purpose. In fact, many sports franchises are owned by people who are explicit about their expectation that they will not make money. “I don’t think of what it’s worth,” Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg recently told The New York Times. “It’s like my house. I don’t think about the value of it because I’m not selling it.” If one is fortunate enough to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase what is essentially a status symbol, one is fortunate enough to survive making even less off that status symbol.
The players are another story. Unlike the owners, they have devoted their lives to competition at the highest level, sacrificing their bodies in the process. Many of them were not born wealthy, but on the contrary have used their physical prowess as a springboard up the socioeconomic ladder. Indeed, sports today is one of the last vestiges of economic mobility, where riches can be yours based on talent alone (or something close to it). Those who display excellence in competition deserve to be rewarded.
More precisely, those who display transcendent excellence deserve to be paid quite a bit of money. I am thinking here of the likes of Michael Jordan and LeBron James, who have performed at a level of almost no equal and received society-wide admiration for doing so. But extravagant wealth now flows to players far inferior to those two. It is one thing for James to make $100 million; it is another for Rashard Lewis to do the same. (If that name inspires quizzical looks, that’s part of the point—Lewis is a teammate of James’s on the Miami Heat, a two-time all-star, a passable but far from transcendent player.)
When Michael Lewis was reporting on baseball, he came across former-player-turned-coach Mark McLemore. Never a very good, let alone excellent, player, McLemore was tutoring his players about the value of hitting balls in the hole, between the shortstop and third baseman. “See that hole over there—there’s $40 million in it,” McLemore says. “I know because I made it.” Forty million dollars, to a player considered barely above average in his sport. With so much money on the table, mediocrity becomes a worthwhile ambition. Even in the context of baseball, hitting a ball in the hole is far from a skill exhibiting otherworldly athletic ability.
We might think of an “excellence threshold,” which, say, LeBron and Derek Jeter surpass, but Rashard Lewis clearly does not. The point here isn’t to make sports a poorly paid profession, but to limit its rewards to an amount less wasteful. One of the founding fathers of modern capitalism, John Locke, put it thusly:
‘God has given us all things richly,’ is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his Labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his… Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.
For those players who cross the excellence threshold, the most exorbitant salaries might be defensible. But for the vast majority, I see little basis for them to be paid at a rate likely to lead to waste and spoil.
If only to show they are not lacking in the common touch, elected officials often interject themselves into sports. The president throws out the first pitch on Opening Day; Richard Nixon calls in a play to the Redskins. Today, President Obama appears semi-frequently on ESPN. Every March, he has announced his NCAA tournament predictions and he has also appeared on various sports podcasts. When President George W. Bush recently visited the White House for his portrait unveiling, President Obama jokingly thanked him for installing a generous television sports package. But these interjections are ephemeral. A new role for government in sports would not only be pro-fan; it would have to be substantive as well. It needs policies. Some of the ideal policy interventions would be easier to pull off than others. Rolling back the NFL’s blackout policy altogether would be a good start. Cutting through the regulatory maze to expand Internet streaming access to games also seems like a no-brainer.
Those would be modest first steps, probably the most politically palatable. Although they may appear less feasible, over the long term two more ambitious interventions should be pursued. The first has to do with stadium construction. When stadiums are built using the public purse, teams should be required to set aside a large number of tickets at affordable prices. For example, the Barclays Center at Atlantic Yards should be compelled to sell half of its seats to individual games for less than $30. Secondary ticket markets, the websites like StubHub.com, should be prohibited from selling any such “economy” tickets. Living in the same city as your favorite team is nice; less so if you can’t afford to go to the games. Taxpaying fans should get more bang for their buck.
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