Faux populism


For the second time today, I’ll be quoting KD (again, this one).  KD has had it up to here with sports writers whose self-delusion has them convinced that when they complain about how much money players make, they’re speaking truth to power. Lots of folks, including ESPN business insider Darren Rovell took to twitter to highlight how much money Johnny Manziel made this year and how little he produced on the field (similar tweets ensued before and after Cutler’s benching last week).

Draper notes that, among other things, the Rovells of the world seem not to understand the structural realities of the businesses they cover:

It is mostly accepted in America that the salary you earn is the salary you deserve. But that’s bullshit. CEOs earn 331 times more than the average worker, and 774 times more than a minimum wage earner. Sure, (some) CEOs bring a lot of value to the company that your average worker doesn’t blah blah blah, but not that much value, and the average CEO certainly doesn’t work 774 times harder than the dude at Burger King. Your salary is based on many things. What you “deserve” and how hard you work are part of it, but so is the social class you were born into, which college (if any) you went to, what your race/gender/age/religion is, how lucky you got, etc.

As KD says, sports markets are more meritocratic than other labor markets in America. But they’re also constrained and distorted in all sorts of ways by salary caps and other phenomena. It matters to evaluate talent properly so that you don’t overspend on an overrated player when what you have to spend is limited by fiat.  But that’s not the game that Rovell and others are playing. Instead, they are telling their followers – “I am with you and against these overhyped, overpaid, entitled athletes.” Among the realities it ignores is that we live in an era of soaring income inequalities and winnner-take-all markets. Once you get on the “right” side of those markets, you win even when you lose. Rovell’s work is often a celebration – if implicit – of those trends. So it’s an annoyingly cheap shot when he complains about a player’s salary. And it’s worth remembering that Manziel’s jerseys were the hottest seller in the NFL for several months this year. Further, at least according to some school officials, he made Texas A&M a small fortune in his two years there, while he was playing for little more than meal money. In other words, if the metric of success is how much money Manziel has made his employers, including his college ones, there is plenty of data to suggest he’s earned his keep. Compare that to your standard taxpayer-bilking owner.

On a related note, since I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest: Dirk Nowitzki has received a lot of praise for having agreed to take less than he could have asked for when he re-signed with the Mavs this summer. Nowitizki agreed to the discounted contract (yes, it’s all relative), in order to allow his owner, the billionaire Mark Cuban, to spend more money on other players. Any fan of the Mavs would rightly be delighted by Nowitzki’s (again relative) selflessness. But the reporting on Dirk’s contract was yet one more unwitting instance of sports media accepting the owners’ heads-I-win-tails-you-lose worldview. The reason, of course, that it is necessary for Dirk to take less money than he might otherwise have gotten is because the owners insist on a salary cap. They do this, not as they disingenuously argue, in order to improve ‘competitive balance.’ They do this in order so that more money goes into their pockets. In this arrangement, if Mark Cuban felt compelled to pay Dirk more than he did, that money would, in effect, come out of the pockets of other players, not his own very deep ones.

The Dirk story is just the flip side of the constant complaints about player pay. When sports writers harrumph about players salaries, they are either acknowledging their implicit ignorance about this shell game, or they’re willful lackeys.


One comment

  1. Conversations like this are the more interesting parts of sports which I feel like is a microcosm of everyday life. From the biases( racial, selective, outcome, etc.) to the financial disparities that exploit people from lower social circles. The funny thing about the bias is about the for the most part, the people who write about sports and news in general are white. That would seem problematic but I’m just a sports fan, what do I know?

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