Sunday, August 10, 2003

The Culture: Sports, Capitalism, and Other Evils...

Syndicated columnist Dan Thomasson exhibits a great deal of sanctimony in trying to convert the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case into an indictment of the entire professional sports culture. Not only does Thomasson decry the culture of professional sports, he also professes to know the ultimate culprit behind Bryant’s possible downfall:
The root cause of all this trouble in professional athletics is money. We are all culprits who supply it in irrational, unbelievable quantities to undereducated, exploited youngsters, who have little understanding of its value or how to manage it. They are not atypical in their age group. They are just wealthy enough to indulge the normal excesses of youth. Add that wherewithal to environmentally and socially deprived backgrounds and the combination is lethal.

Worshiping fans must bear part of the blame. But a major share belongs to the corporations that fuel the entire big-time sports industry. They buy the overpriced boxes and blocs of seats in the arenas for clients and pay the hefty endorsements to sell the shoes and paraphernalia for which less fortunate children have been known to kill one another. Their advertising supports the huge television revenues distributed among the various teams. The average NBA fan can't afford to see a game first-hand, so high are the prices for anything close to a decent seat and minimal concessions. Often the corporate seats are empty in surreal defiance of the announced "sell-out."

In a perfect world, no one whose only skill is throwing a ball through a hoop would be paid anywhere near the kind of money that Kobe Bryant and his fellow players enjoy, and in the old days they weren't. The great player and coach, John Wooden, used to get $5 a game as a professional, the same as a Ford assembly worker. But that was before endorsements and television. This is a world intoxicated by the vicarious thrill of celebrity. It is a world where hitting a baseball can earn a person a million times more than a distinguished teacher or an artist of immense talent would be paid, where the athletes are far more valued than the doctors who must constantly patch them together.
In these three paragraphs, Thomasson flawlessly demonstrates what Ayn Rand once called “hatred of the good for being good.” Thomasson doesn’t simply criticize; he exhibits moral contempt for those who do not share his idealized, conservative view of how the world should behave. In doing so, he reveals a contempt not for professional sports or “money,” but for the very principles that underlie our free society and, ultimately, man’s ability to prosper on this earth.

Take, for starters, Thomasson’s breathless condemnation of “money” as the root of “all this trouble in professional athletics.” In the first place, one could not classify an endeavor as “professional” unless the participants are paid, so in this sense Thomasson is condemning professional athletics as per se evil. Beyond that, he mislabels his premise. Money cannot cause trouble or evil. Money is not a volitional creature, but a medium of exchange devised by man for his benefit. Without money—the root of Thomasson’s evil—man would be reduced to a bartering culture, where wealth would lack portability, and commerce itself would be impossible except on the village or household level.

What Thomasson means with his words is that capitalism is the root of evil in professional sports. He reserves his most hated criticism for the various instruments of capitalism: corporations, consumers, producers, and the marketplace. Without any of these instruments of evil, Thomasson reasons, sports could return to the purer, egalitarian ideals of his memorialized youth.

Of course, the sports culture was far from ideal in the time “before endorsements and television.” Thomasson, making the classic conservative’s error, excludes the unpleasant details of the past while finding nothing but fault with the present. While it’s nice that John Wooden was once paid no more than a Ford worker, what about the men who played in the NFL prior to the modern rise in salaries? Many, if not most, of the pre-1960s era players found their bodies broken and their wallets empty when their careers ended, a testament to the low salaries of the era “before endorsements and television.” Find any linesman from the 1950s, 1960s, or even the 1970s, and ask them how things were in the good old days. What you’ll find is that they have small pensions and multiple surgeries (and quite probably some permanent injuries) to their credit. This was the world without the evils of modern capitalism.

Thomasson dismisses such notions by trying to denigrate the work of athletes. He says men like Bryant should be cast aside by society because their “only skill is throwing a ball through a hoop.” This is not just false; it is a vicious slander on the millions of Americans who actively participate in all walks of sports. A professional basketball player puts thousands of hours into training and development, both physical and mental, before he ever sets foot on an NBA court. Even high school phenoms like LeBron James—who Thomasson considered undereducated and exploited—has put more time into perfecting his body and skills than most typical college freshmen. Basketball is certainly not rocket science, but nor is it easy; if it were, everyone would be earning multi-million dollar contracts and the NBA would have 300 franchises rather than 30.

Thomasson tries arguing Bryant and James are incapable of handling their fortunes at such a young age. That’s just nonsense. It’s also reflective of another conservative sentiment—young people are useless except as compliant drones for infallible authorities. Blame the spread of four-year high schools for this. There was a time in this country, when the nation was far less advanced economically, when men were reasonably expected by the age of 16 to be capable of working for a living, possibly starting a family, and in general making something of their lives. Today, men like Thomasson decry the gainful employment of 18 year old high school graduates as unreasonable and unethical. Yes, there is always a risk that a young man with money will consume himself into financial ruin. But one cannot presume that will always be the outcome, and one cannot deny a man the fruits of his labor simply because an outside critic deems him unworthy of his fortune. Furthermore, there is no evidence in Bryant’s case—the alleged source of Thomasson’s angst—that Kobe was foolish with his money (the $4 million ring for his wife notwithstanding), only that he committed adultery. Cheating on one’s wife is a moral transgression that defies age, and it is hardly unique to athletes as a group.

In decrying the sports culture, Thomasson attacks capitalism for such alleged crimes as corporations buying “overpriced” arena boxes. This is a classic conservative attack that’s used to support such market “correcting” policies as antitrust. What makes an arena skybox overpriced? Well, Thomasson says they’re overpriced, ergo that must be the case. There’s no evidence the customers—those evil corporations—are unhappy. The same goes for the “average” fan who “can’t afford to see a game first-hand”. Here in Washington, for example, the Redskins have several thousand names on their waiting list, and have sold out every game for three decades, despite rising prices that men like Thomasson would consider insufferable capitalist plunder.

And incidentally, why is it that important that ticket prices be lowered to the “average” fan’s level? Personally, I am an avid sports fan, but I don’t go to many games. It’s not the ticket prices that keep me away, I just don’t care for crowds. But thanks to—gasp—television and their wicked corporate sponsors, I can watch just about any game I want to from the comfort of my home. Thanks to corporations, for example, for the relatively modest cost of a DirecTV system, I can watch every single NFL game on a given Sunday, something I could not do while sitting in a cramped section of FedEx Field. So far from exploiting the aggrieved fan, television benefits average fans by making sporting events available to him that would not otherwise be accessible on national basis.

So if corporations, money, and capitalism benefit players, businesses, and fans, who exactly is the loser here? People like Thomasson, whose corrupt sense of right and wrong lead them to hate institutions that, on balance, benefit man and improve the quality of their lives.

Thomasson’s last argument is that athletes shouldn’t be paid more than a “distinguished teacher or an artist of immense talent” or doctors. Let’s take those one at a time:

The teacher argument is actually fascinating when you consider the contrasting nature of a professional sports league to a government-run school system. In a capitalist system like the NBA, players essentially are paid based on merit and performance (or on future expectations of such) within the general guidelines established by a collective bargaining agreement. A veteran player, for example, is entitled to a minimum salary based on years of service, but the team can pay him more if both sides so agree. A “distinguished teacher” in a government school, however, does not have such opportunities, because “merit pay,” as it’s called, is considered an anathema to the political leadership of almost all teacher unions. Instead, teachers are paid solely on the basis of years served, without regard to merit, talent, or achievement. It is, in effect, a socialist system.

It’s also worth pointing out that government schools, unlike the NBA, are instruments that consume wealth rather than produce wealth. The NBA can only pay its players multi-million dollar salaries if the league actually earns the revenue. Government schools, in contrast, appropriate their funds from taxpayers under threat of force. Additionally, most teacher unions will eagerly use their legal protections as a collective bargaining unit (and sometimes their not-so-legal privileges) to extract salary increases by holding their customers—the children forced to attend government schools—hostage. Say what you will about professional athletes, but I can’t recall of a single sports labor dispute where children were forcibly used as bargaining chips.

Now as to the allegedly underpaid “artist[s] of immense talent,” I admit I’m confused. What artists are we referring to? Plenty of artists—actors, singers, etc.—make money on par with professional athletes. Clearly they’re not at a market disadvantage. Or maybe Tomasson was referring to artists that he likes but that others don’t, maybe the kind that rely on government grants to get by? Either way, Thomasson hasn’t proven much beyond restating his hatred of a free market that doesn’t produce the results he cares for.

Finally, as to doctors, I admit that I agree with Thomasson. Doctors are certainly underpaid relative to their actual value. Most of my days are spent studying this precise problem. One major impediment to justly compensating physicians is federal antitrust laws that are used to prevent doctors from collectively negotiating with health insurers. If only doctors could band together legally, they wouldn’t be at the mercy of health plans. Much the same way athletes were once at the mercy of franchise owners—and compensated even more poorly—until the players formed an effective union to leverage their economic power in the marketplace. The result, of course, is the decrepit capitalist system Thomasson now condemns. Thus, it’s unclear what Thomasson wants the doctors to do. Since money, capitalism, and free trade are not virtuous means of pursuing one’s interests, in Thomasson’s view, I suppose that leaves only force. But that’s not what Thomasson could have meant. He is, after all, a conservative...

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