The Games Political People Play
It's a game of inches – the line between the politics of sports and the sport of politics. Pro athletes are overpaid, egomaniacs, according to conventional sports wisdom. Egomaniacs? Maybe. But overpaid? Not according to the principles of "free-market" economics.
Are sports fans suffering from a case of collective schizophrenia? I mean, how come when a fan complains about how much money pro ballers make it's considered a common-sensical observation, but if you question why CEO salaries are 400 times the size of their workers' people call you a communist?
Why do pro sports teams bring in so much money? Because sports fans and advertisers are willing (even if grudgingly) to cough up big bucks; not just to see guys play, but to see particular superstars play.
We don't want to see just anybody play games. We want to see Shaquille O'Neal, in particular, dunk a basketball. We want to see Brett Favre, in particular, throw the pigskin. We want to see Roger Clemens, in particular, toe the rubber.
Why do pro athletes make so much loot? Because 99.9 percent of sports fans can't do what they do, even if they injected themselves with steroids. The worst player in Major League Baseball is 100 times better than the best kid on just about any nonprofessional baseball team, anywhere.
So if you're Shaq and you draw, say, a billion dollars in team revenue, market logic dictates that you have a legitimate claim to a huge chunk of that fortune.
Yet the humongous salaries of pro athletes give rise to anger and jealousy among even non-sports fans. And for obvious reasons: These athletes are not objectively worth what they are paid in comparison to say, teachers or doctors or public safety officials.
Pro sports presents an unambiguous example of how market values distort real value. But when you point this out in a political arena, these very same sports fans won't hesitate to denounce you as an anti-American, freedom-hating, commie.
Pro sports team owners have a monopoly and they want player salary caps? So there's no limit to how much money owners can make but the ones who are responsible for creating their fortunes must be limited in how much they can earn?
How come fans don't call for salary caps on team owners so that ordinary working people don't have to take out a small personal loan to actually see the game live and in person?
Racial politics in sports? Witness the shock and horror following the basket-brawl involving Indiana Pacers star Ron Artest and several Detroit Pistons fans. So much hand-wringing about how rich "thugs" in the NBA are out of control and need to be disciplined.
But where's all the moral outrage about the thuggery in the mostly white NHL, where violence on the ice is so common it's become a joke? I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.
The steroid scandal in baseball? Barry Bonds' accomplishments are being called into question. But what about Mark McGwire's use of performance-enhancing drugs? I don't hear calls for putting an asterisk next to his name.
Sports "experts"? Fans don't defer to their expertise and won't hesitate to publicly disagree with a proven success in sports on issues of decision-making, etc. But when it comes to something that actually matters, like politics, people act like the Donald Rumsfelds of the world are sages of some sort.
In fact, in this day of hyper patriotism, it's considered disloyal anti-Americanism to question the wisdom of political experts, unless, of course, they're "liberal elitists."
And if a pro athlete happens to voice his displeasure with, say, the war in Iraq, as did Toronto Blue Jays star Carlos Delgado, what happens? He gets booed and lectured by fans and commentators about how he should just shut up and play ball. After all, he's an athlete, not a political "expert."
But when the political gods descend from their Mount Olympus to discipline athletes, as is being done in professional baseball right now, well, that's just perfectly fine. Where are the sports fans calling for non-athletic congressmen to just shut up and stick to politics? If know-nothing politicians can weigh in on sports, can't athletes legitimately voice their political opinions?
These are just some of the games political people play.