Bill Simmon’s piece yesterday on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his hypocritical, dictatorial governing style got me thinking about the intersection of sports and politics. Much has been written (and spoken) about how the most American of sports leagues, the NFL, is definitively socialist. Goodell recently admitted as much on 60 minutes. Revenue (tickets, TV rights, merchandise) is shared between the teams, there is a strict salary cap, and the team with the worst record is awarded the best draft pick to ensure they don’t stay bad forever. For a country where socialism is employed more often as an insult than an ideology, that’s kind of weird. But when it comes to sports, Americans really want every team to have a fair shot. While the NBA has a soft salary cap–and the MLB has no cap at all–both leagues redistribute revenue and operate on a similar premise. Parity is the end goal. This contradiction of politics and sports is more interesting when you consider how different much of the world is.
The inequality present in the Barclay’s English Premier League is staggering in view of England’s politics. Obviously England isn’t socialist, but they occupy a very different place on the political spectrum. Let’s call it a standard deviation to the left. Obama would probably be a member of the conservative Tory party in a land where single-payer universal healthcare is a beloved public institution. In any case, nominally communist China is just one of many countries around the world with a comparable system. Back to England’s bank-sponsored sports league. There are no rules about player wages or spending, and rich teams routinely buy top players from smaller clubs for fees in the $20-30 million range. Smaller clubs can’t turn down that type of money, and there is no restriction on where it comes from: the two recent teams (Chelsea and Manchester City) to break big-spending Manchester United and Arsenal’s joint stranglehold on the Premier League title are owned, respectively, by a Russian oligarch and a billionaire Abu Dhabi oil man. Sheikh Mansour, our oil man, has put up 565 million of the 930.4 million pounds the club spent last year. There is no draft; big teams sign up the best youngsters and buy the ones they missed later. The bottom three teams in the table actually drop out of the league altogether, to be replaced by the top three from the division below. Big clubs win, attract better players, and are invited to pan-European competitions to win some more. It bears mentioning here that FIFA is implementing “financial fair play in 2014″ to end the sugar-daddy era, and force teams to live within their means, but football will still be a game decided by money.
So the differences are clear. The question is why. Why do flag-waving football fans love a league Premier Goodell tells us is a ”cartel, albeit a legal one, thanks to a limited exemption from anti-trust laws granted by Congress more than 50 years ago”? Why are Englishman OK with a league that foreign businessman use for profit or for play? Where the little guy has no chance and he knows it? Does it say anything about our underlying political views?
Not in the traditional sense. There is no secret undercurrent of socialism in the heart of every revenue-sharing Cowboys fan. The American-style is socialist, but it’s also more of a meritocracy. A good GM, coach, or single-player can win without a financial advantage. England has no Billy Beane (recently of Moneyball fame), no LeBron James dragging a moribund Cavaliers outfit to the finals. Mark Cuban throws his weight around, but he’s no Roman Abramovich. But maybe, just maybe, our sports are a vibrant manifestation of American economic dynamism, a shining light for athletic entrepreneurs. You know, the American dream, social mobility–all that good stuff. Meaning the Premier League stands for sclerotic old-world, old-money unfairness that is unfit for this side of the Atlantic. Sometimes that’s what I like to believe. Then again, I’m a Manchester United fan. And we might just buy the title this year.
By: Noah Gordon
(Photo by Bruce Stokes under a Creative Commons License)