A-Rod and Inequality: A Lesson Worth Learning
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Everything you really need to know about life, a fun best-seller posited a few years back, you learn in kindergarten. Like share everything and don't take things that aren't yours. But what if you want to go a little deeper into life's mysteries? What if you want to better understand what happens when people don't share -- and you can't fit yourself on a kindergarten stool?
No problem. Everything you need to know about inequality, about the perils of letting grand concentrations of wealth settle in the pockets of a few, you can actually learn, if you pay close enough attention, just by turning on your TV and watching ESPN's SportsCenter all day.
Last week, lots of folks did tune in to SportsCenter -- to hear superstar Alex Rodriguez, the nation's highest-paid ballplayer, confess that, yes, he has indeed imbibed illicit performance-enhancing drugs.
All this drug taking, pundits and pols spent last week angrily pronouncing, sends a horrible message to the nation's youth. True enough. But the Alex Rodriguez uproar also sends a powerful message about the perils of inequality, a message that the sports world seems to deliver, week in and week out, with a clarity we seldom see in the "real world" beyond the outfield fences.
Apologists for inequality, in whatever sphere they operate, regularly contend that the greater the rewards our society offers, the more the most talented among us will strive to succeed. The more they strive and succeed, the better off the rest of us will most certainly be.
In sports, none of these claims hold any water, as the story around "A-Rod" so grippingly reminds us.
That story starts in 2001, the year Rodriguez signed a ten-year, $252 million contract to play ball for the Texas Rangers. No pro athlete, at the time, had ever inked a deal anywhere near that mammoth.
Tom Hicks, the billionaire Rangers owner, justified the new contract with the same pep-talk PR we hear when corporate boards sign up a new celebrity CEO. Rodriguez would turn the Rangers franchise around, Hicks promised, and open up an era of untrammeled on-the-field success.
Baseball fans should have known better. High-priced stars seldom turn their new teams around. Rodriguez certainly didn't. His new team struggled. In the meantime, the team he left, the Seattle Mariners, promptly tied an all-time baseball season record for wins.
Not a coincidence, says the research of Matt Bloom, a management expert at the University of Notre Dame business school. In the 1990s, Bloom subjected nine years worth of Major League baseball salary and performance data to close analysis. His research would draw one clear conclusion.
"The bigger the pay difference between a team's stars and scrubs," as the Wall Street Journal summed up Bloom's findings, "the worse its record."
But sports franchise owners, just like corporate boards of directors, continue to believe that mega millions act as an unbeatable incentive for excellence. They have that half right. Huge rewards do function as an incentive, just not for excellence. In life as people actually live it, the bigger the reward, the greater the incentive to do anything, no matter how risky or destructive, to win the reward -- or, as in the A-Rod case, to justify it.
"When I arrived at Texas in 2001," Alex Rodriguez told ESPN's SportsCenter last week, "I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day."