Other People’s Money
In the midst of all the Vick coverage, I just had to comment on one little throw-away line in an ESPN.com column yesterday by Gene Wojchiechowski. The column itself was standard stuff: Vick as a cautionary tale, the frequent stupidity of professional athletes, etc. But, the comment below well illustrates the mindset of much of sports media, for whom billionaires’ riches are to be unquestioned, while millionaire athletes are undeserving pretenders to other people’s money.
Vick used Atlanta Falcons money, or Nike money, or Coca-Cola money, or EA Sports money (hey, everybody loved Mike back then) to bankroll a gambling operation so repugnant that you need a barf bag to watch the footage of what happens when pit bulls are turned into canine gladiators.
I have commented many times before on the schizophrenic relationship of most sports media and sports fans to the ‘market.’ Most of the time, that relationship is an uncritical one – capital’s prerogatives are rarely questioned in a fundamental way in American sports discourse. There are exceptions – people complain about ticket prices, for example, notwithstanding the fact that those are set by the laws of supply and demand. But, generally speaking, vast accumulations of wealth – and the attendant political and financial clout that such wealth allows owners and leagues to wield – are well down the list of topics of interest for sports commentators. Because, in the end of the day, owners can do what they want with their money, their ball, their franchises and their stadiums (even when those stadiums really belong to local taxpayers).
When it comes to players’ salaries, of course, the tone and focus change fundamentally. Fans and commentators complain endlessly about those, notwithstanding the fact that those salaries are also set by a labor market driven by supply and demand. But, the endless harping on them (witness Arod’s contract) speaks to something deeper – an underlying sense that players aren’t really entitled to their wealth in the way that owners are. Wojo’s comment goes farther than most in reflecting that sort of logic: he’s actually gone so far as to argue that the money didn’t belong to Michael Vick. That Vick did unspeakable (and moronic) things with that money is already well-established. But, how is the money he spent not his? How is that money more legitimately the property of the Falcons, or Nike, or EA or whomever it was who found it in their financial interests to pay Michael Vick?
Am I making alot out of that line? Maybe. But, I think it’s highly revealing – a sentiment based on the idea that athletes should never see themselves as anything but lucky to be in the position they are, as always living on borrowed time and as properly understood to be the wards of those institutions in American life that are legitimately entitled to their wealth – major corporations. I noted a few weeks back that Peter King was highlighting efforts by Commissioner Goodell to remind the players that it was a privilege, not a right, to play in the NFL and doubted whether Goodell would ever make a similar comment to NFL owners.
There is a perverseness in this double standard about whose fortunes are legitimate and whose are the consequence of other peoples’ beneficence. Perverseness because one of the key pillars of American capitalism is the notion that those who assume risk deserve the reward. This is doubly wrong-headed when it comes to sports. First, because owning a major league franchise (especially in the NFL) means never assuming meaningful risk. Given the combination of revenue-sharing, an all but legal monopoly, and multi-billion dollar television contracts (not to mention on-going stadium/taxpayer swindles) – owning an NFL team is a license to print money. There is, in no meaningful sense, any risk whatsoever in such a business venture.
The second side of the perverseness of the risk argument is that all meaningful risk is assumed by the wage-earners, the players. Their future physical and mental well-being, indeed their very mortality, is at stake. Do they choose that life? Of course. But, that choice doesn’t change the fact that they alone assume put something of real value on the line for the well-being of the business.
Given the obvious fact that Blank and Nike and everyone else paid Vick because they found it financially beneficial to do so, and given that, by all relevant laws and norms of American economic life, those decisions entitled Vick to the money he received, on what basis could Wojo argue that Vick’s money belonged, in fact, to someone else?
Only on the basis that pro athletes are, in some fundamental sense, chattel (or children), whose proper relation to management is to thank their masters for their sustenance and to accept their status as something less than entitled citizens.
And, you can make all the clever remarks you want about Vick, but the logic of Wojo’s comment applies to every professional athlete. And, on the merits, is there a serious debate about whether the Arods, Larry Johnsons and Tom Bradys of the world are more deserving of the fortunes they’ve made from sports than their owners?
Wojo is just the latest in a long line of sports commentators who, oblivious to his own (unearned?) wealth and privilege, has, in the name of “common sense” and “good guy” values, has weighed in on the side of billionaires and morally dubious corporations (I’m surely not alone in noting the irony of Nike feigning moral indignation over a lack of humaneness). And, in the process, provided yet another example of the sports corollary of the bullshit populism that has so infused our national conversation.