The NFL is unquestionably big business. The amount of money that flows into the league from its numerous sources is staggering. The success of the league is also one of the it’s biggest criticisms as well. It’s next to impossible to have a conversation with someone who’s not a fan of sports (as well as many who are) without the subject of overpaid athletes coming up. It’s been the subject of tired rants and predictable conversation, and that’s not gonna stop anytime soon. To steal a line from a different article, saying athletes are overpaid is probably the most uncontroversial statement someone can make about sports.
But do athletes really make too much? Well, if it’s such an uncontroversial statement to suggest they don’t, I’ll be controversial: Athletes earn exactly what they should. It’s rare that I’m accused of being a fiscal conservative, but this is one situation where I think free market economics are right on.
Admit it, a part of you is just jealous.
The first objection that’s raised to the idea that sports stars earn their money is that there’s all sorts of other vocations that don’t make as much. This argument usually sounds something like this:
“Teaching is one of the most economically important occupations because our future economy relies on the education of its youth, yet teachers are paid astronomically less than the average professional athlete is… Furthermore, police officers, firefighters, and doctors save lives while risking their own for a fraction of what sports stars make. People in the military leave their families at home to defend and protect the country knowing they may never return.”
Trust me, I’m well aware of what a teacher makes; my wife is one, and supports both of us with her meager salary. You’re not gonna find a bigger advocate for raising teacher’s wages than me. Same goes for all the other public service jobs. Police, firefighters, soldiers… hell, I’ll even say politicians could use a bump in pay. Perhaps if we paid them more, they wouldn’t pull so much corrupt bullshit to make more money.
On second thought… scratch that last one.
But there’s a problem with that logic. As I said, those are public jobs. If you think teachers deserve more money, then pay them more! Raise taxes across the board. Fill the public coffers and demand that these people who do so much for our society – from the police who protect us to the road workers who fix the potholes for us – get paid what they deserve. But the voting record shows that we as a society are not willing to do it. Every time someone suggests raising taxes to give teachers a raise, screams of over-taxation and communism assault us.
Athletes on the other hand, are being paid with private money. It’s not your cash. If you don’t think athletes deserve the pay they’re getting, great! Don’t buy jerseys; don’t go to games; don’t watch on TV. Congratulations, not a penny of your money is going to pay for athlete’s wages.
“Really? That’s all I had to do?”
See, professional athletes are a part of a private business, and they make huge sums of money because they bring huge sums of money into their industry. Lebron James will earn over $19 million this year. That’s a lot of money – to put that in perspective, he probably will make my wife’s annual salary with every basket he makes this season. The Miami Heat, are willing to pay that, though, for LeBron and Chris Bosh (who, believe it or not, makes exactly the same as James) to play along side their own star, Dwayne Wade, because that brings money into their franchise. Since they started playing together, those three stars have led the team to the NBA finals every season, winning the last two. And I certainly wouldn’t bet against them to go all the way again this year. Championships mean money for the Heat organization. Championships drive ticket sales and television deals. The Heat made an investment in Lebron and Bosh, and that investment is paying off huge in trophies, glory, and – most importantly to the team owners – money.
Another objection I often hear from non-sports fans is that athletes only play a game instead of providing something useful to society. It’s a comment that’s usually delivered with a heavy side of condescension. And you know what, in part, they’re right. Sports, by its very nature, is frivolous. Sports neither ends wars nor changes governments. It doesn’t educate or discover. It only exists to be admired and enjoyed.
Meh, doesn’t look all that hard.
That, however, doesn’t change the fact that sports stars don’t just play a game; they play a game better than anybody else on the planet. The top-level, multi-millionaire athletes are top-level because they are the very best at what they do. Peyton Manning is earning $17.5 million this year because he is the best quarterback the NFL has ever produced (as proven by the Broncos first Super Bowl appearance since John Elway was their quarterback). Manning makes that much money because no one else in the world can play QB like he does.
Sports aren’t the only industry that works like that. What does your average accountant make? $50K? $75K for a really good one? What about Kevin Hayes, FD for British investment firm Man Group? He makes £2.5 million (roughly $3.7 million) annually. He makes that kind of money because he’s the very best at what he does. The most talented people in most industries make much more money than average. But since most of their salaries aren’t published in the newspaper every year, nobody pays much attention.
“Same wages, but less bling. Bling isn’t deductible.”
Part of what makes the economic structure of sports so effective is the fact that sports, unlike almost any other industry in this world, is a true meritocracy. How many corporate directors have you heard about paying themselves huge bonuses after losing their companies millions? Or even worse, people who profit on the ashes of companies that they’ve invested in and destroyed? Or even people who buy into companies, than pocket so much of the profits that the company folds, only to blame it on the laborers.
That’s not how things work in the sports world. If you can’t play, you lose your job. It’s that simple. Those who consistently perform at a high level get to leverage that ability into a higher wage. If they can’t keep their high level of play, though, nobody will pay them.
Furthermore, I would even suggest that sports is one of the few places where the drivers of the industry are actually paid fairly. This isn’t like McDonald’s posting 10 or 11 figure profits while most of their employees are on food stamps. Athletes produce the product that drives the sports industry, and earn the profits from that industry. Not only do they earn the money from the product they produce, but they also provide profit for the investors and team owners as well as providing living wage salaries for most other people in the industry.
“So you’re saying I basically flip burgers for a living?”
Also, sports is not an industry in a vacuum. Countless other businesses and jobs rely on sports to survive. There’s a reason that the major TV networks are willing to pay $27 billion for the rights to air NFL games. In the modern climate of DVRs and streaming television, live sports are the only real draw TV has anymore. If those end, then the networks fold. Without the power and financial support of the networks, you not only will lose all the good (and bad) programming being produced, but everyone whose job relies on television is out of work. I’m not only talking about TV stars who make seven figures an episode, but every single person whose livelihood depends on television will be jobless. Everyone from the cameramen to the props specialists and set designers. Even the drivers and the caterers will all have to find new markets for their skills, and there just won’t be any. Thousand upon thousands of people without work, and no new jobs for them to fill.
All the journalists who cover sports, and all the publications that depend on sports to bring readers in would also fold. Without sports, the economic collapse in society would be traumatic. And without athletes, there’s no product to support the sports industry.
In any other industry, the average wage of the producers of the product would be much lower, and it only be the directors and shareholders who benefit from the profits earned. Paying athletes less doesn’t change the amount of money flowing into the major leages. If athletes weren’t earning all that money, then the league and the team owners would be getting it, and that’s hardly fair either. Who do you think deserve to be paid more, the players that put their bodies on the line for the game, or the owners who provide the setting for the athletes to play? Team owners certainly deserve a return on the investment they made on the team, but not at the expense of the people on the team itself.
“I assure you, if it were up to me I’d be paying them minimum wage.”
And finally, there’s the fact that your average career of an athlete is brutally short. It takes a limitless amount of dedication and hard work from a very early age to become a successful athlete. All that work could end at any time. I’ve already discussed at length what a brutal sport football is to the human body. While most sports aren’t that hazardous to its players, the potential for a career-ending injury is always present even in the most low-impact sports. Even if an athlete is lucky enough to avoid that fate, they’re considered past their prime by 30 and ancient by 40. Considering the dedication needed to even reach that high level, most athletes spend most of their time and energy when their young focused on the game to the detriment to the other aspects of their lives. Consequently, they often finish their careers with few marketable skills and few options to support themselves. The incredibly high wages leave athletes with a large cushion when they finish their careers. With a little fiscal responsibility, they shouldn’t have to worry about their livelihood again, just like any other retiree.
Long story short (too late), yes athletes make a lot of money; in some cases, obscene amounts of money. But those wages aren’t just handed to them for no reason. It took years of battling with team owners before athletes started earning what they deserved. I will never make as much as the average NFL player, never mind one of the top NFL players, but that’s because I will never be as good at anything in my life as the average NFL player is at what he does. And that’s just reasonable.