America has a dirty little secret when it comes to sports. We like to pride ourselves as Americans on our supporting competition and freedom, and we are ravenous sports fans, but when it comes to our sports we put up with a great deal of socialism that we would not accept in our political or economic lives. So, in the interests of seeing consistency in all walks of life, I have some handy and fairly simple suggestions for how to make our sports follow our general culture and mindset.
Get Rid Of Salary Caps, Luxury Taxes, and Maximum Contracts
Just about all American sports have some kind of income redistribution to take money from the haves (wealthy teams in big markets) and give it to the have nots (poorer teams in small markets). Different sports manage this differently. Many sports, like football and basketball, have a pretty strict salary cap and a specific percentage split between players and owners. Not only are there limits to how much a team can spend, but that money (through a “luxury tax”) goes to poorer teams to subsidize their operations. This is definitely socialist. In the United States (at least the United States I know), we do not accept taking (or “stealing”) from the successful and giving to the less successful.
In addition, most sports have “maximum contracts” for players. This goes hand in hand with salary caps. The goal is to keep some teams (like the Dallas Cowboys in football or the New York Yankees in baseball) from hoarding good players while other teams are unable to afford good players. There are also minimum salaries for rookies and veterans. The result of these policies is that many teams are made up of a few superstars on maximum contracts and a lot of role players working for fairly little. None of this is how a real company would work—if you wanted an elite performing company, you would pay elite salaries (probably heavily incentive-based) to keep elite talent. If you are only willing or able to pay mediocre or low salaries (or have no interest in providing positive incentives) you ensure you only get mediocre or low talent. Teams have often forgotten this truth, and so they go through a revolving door of coaches while owners insist on elite performance with very suboptimal mindsets. At least the New York Yankees, because they are willing to pay massive luxury taxes every year to pay for enough elite players, can expect the playoffs almost every year. Most teams have no right to complain of low performance given the way they pay (see the Pittsburgh Pirates, for example).
Stop Rewarding Failure
In the business world, if one’s team is doing poorly, they cannot expect a guaranteed infusion of talent. Instead, they can expect that their team might become superfluous to their company’s plans, or that they may be given the pink slip. In sports, if your team does badly, you have a good pick in the next year’s draft so that you are nearly sure of being better than you were before. This is a highly socialist situation, and not like the business culture we claim to represent. In the modern sports society, teams often benefit from failure—at least basketball has a “lottery” which makes spots random and subject to chance—in baseball and football teams are slotted based on their finish, meaning a team can intentionally lose (or at least be tempted to or accused of doing) in order to get a better draft pick. This also punishes poor teams from trying their hardest, because it means they are less able to get better in the future for doing a little better now. Is this the lesson we want to teach others?
In fact, having a draft at all is socialist, as is having a maximum roster limit. If a team is willing to pay lots of money to draft as many people as possible, why not let them? If someone would prefer to be a bench player for a good team and make less money and have less playing time versus being a starter on a bad team and making more money, let them make that decision. If someone wants to pay a lot of money for players who will probably not play often, unless there are a lot of injuries, why hinder their ability to save for a rainy day because you want everyone to be “equal?” We accept a great deal of inequality in life—why not let sports reflect our reality and be a true reflection of our character as a society, rather than give people impractical ideas about how society should behave based on the precedent of sports.
Remove Barriers To Entry
In order for sports teams to be less socialist, we need to remove barriers to entry for success at the highest levels. College football shows this idea at its worst. Teams are in conferences, for the most part, based on either how good they were in 1970 or based on what market they have, so that a team that is more recent in its success, like Boise State, is unable to move into the best conferences which alone have an opportunity for the highest success (national championships). In a fair system, there would be no such barriers to success. A playoff would allow teams to settle their claims to being the best on the field, not in the polls. Crony capitalism, after all, is just one form of socialism, and college football has the market cornered on that ugly blight, or so it appears.
But it is not only conferences but also even leagues where there are stiff barriers of entry. In the United States we like to claim that anyone can rise to the limit of their talents (whether we still believe that is up to question, but we claim it), but in our sports world that claim is entirely hollow. Unlike in (more socialist) Europe, there is no movement between leagues or levels in sports in the United States on a regular basis. In Europe, if a soccer team does poorly in the Premier League (of England) or its national equivalent, it gets relegated, has to gut its squad, and then fight its way back up. If it stays in the top flights, it has earned it through victories on the field.
This does not happen in the United States. There are proposals (which I agree with, incidentally) that would fire the lowest 3% of teachers every year to open up space for (possibly more talented) up and comers. This is the same principle in relegation and promotion. The bottom teams get kicked downstairs to a lower level and told their performance is not up to snuff. The better teams from lower divisions have the chance to rise to the limits of their coaching and athletic talent as well as the support of their area. Everyone has to earn their place and keep earning their place season after season—after all, that’s how our business world works, right? Why not make athletic teams live by the same rules?
No Corporate Welfare
One of the things that bothers me the most about sports is how billionaire owners beg and plead and demand for taxpayers to build them expensive new stadiums every few years. This is completely unacceptable. If we say out of one side of our mouth that government has no business supporting the arts, or education, or the survival and well-being of the poor (and I believe that these tasks are the job of families and churches and local neighborhoods and communities, rather than the government, though these institutions have miserably failed at their responsibilities), then we have no business supporting the subsidy of business through taxes. If a team wants a new stadium that will profit its owner, the owner needs to pony up for it. If we cannot afford to do so, he can sell shares of his stadium project to those who have the capital to help him. If the taxpayers pay for the stadium then it needs to be free for the ordinary people who have paid for it—what has been paid for by taxes ought to be owned by the people. Using public money for private profit is immoral, and made even more scandalous and wicked when the people who profit from such corrupt practices then turn around and say that the poor and needy have no business receiving government help themselves.
Additionally, to make sports less socialist they need to do a better job of taking care of their own as well. Why is it that owners profit off of the labor of a worker for a few years, then cut him, and leave him on the streets due to his injuries (this is especially true of football players with a history of concussions) to die on the public dole, or completely destitute, while one continues to make money by selling memorabilia and video footage of that player. This is unconscionably wicked behavior, and it has happened to plenty of players (like Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers). Athletes take on a high amount of risk by playing dangerous sports, and for leagues to profit off of their abilities and then “outsource” the pain and suffering of those same people to others without dealing with it in house is especially galling and unacceptable—think of what happens to companies like BP and Exxon when they “externalize” their messes to others, they get fined and lose a lot of credibility. Sports teams should be held to the same level of accountability.
One other way in which the government provides unfair benefits to sports teams is through antitrust exemptions. How many other private businesses receive huge amounts of tax moneys through subsidized stadiums and operations, receive unfair exemptions from laws designed to prevent cartels and trusts, and then turn around and make huge profits? Sports leagues ought to play by the same rules as everyone else does—which would encourage them to think of themselves as more reflective of our culture as a whole and less of a privleged and elite exception.
There are no doubt many other ways to make American sports less socialist, but these are some easy steps that would create massive changes in the way that sports in America operates. Getting rid of salary caps, luxury taxes, and maximum contracts, as well as roster limits, would allow teams (and players) to make decisions based on their own priorities and give less space for leagues to redistribute wealth to prop up teams that refuse to play to win. Ceasing to reward failure through drafts (especially guaranteed high draft picks) would force teams to put their money where their mouth is rather than assure themselves the high likelihood of talent infusions every year with minimal effort. Teams would no longer be able to rely on having a guaranteed slot to acquire someone’s rights—they would have to acquire those rights the hard way, by bargaining for them on the open market. Additionally, sports leagues and conferences ought to remove barriers to entry, ceasing to prop up failing teams or refusing entry to up and comping squads. Let the quality of a squad’s play be settled on the field of competition, rather than in polls or in their acquired reputation from decades ago. Finally, stop exempting sports leagues from their legal obligations, allowing them to outsource the health and welfare of old players to the public sphere, or allow them to make private profit off of corporate welfare. If sports can do these simple things, then at least they can claim with some level of sincerity that they are genuinely capitalist rather than socialist utopian experiments.