What We Can Learn from Millionare Athletes

“Money can’t buy happiness,” is a common lesson to many American morality tales, whether it’s Charles Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carole,” a fall from criminal grace story like “The Godfather,” or the modern reincarnation – the stock broker gets what’s coming to him story like “The Wolf of Wallstreet” or the TV show “Secession.”

This lesson is bullshit.

Take for example, the idea that money can’t buy love. Taken literally, that’s quite true, but finding a lifelong romantic partner is largely predicated on sexual attraction – the initial spark that makes two people want to be together. Most people don’t want to admit this, but being sexually attractive mostly boils down to having money and free time. Having an attractive body boils down to being able to afford healthy food and have the time and money to dedicate to the gym. Perceived facial and body flaws can be fixed with surgery. Clothing makes you more attractive – hell, even having a nice car makes you more attractive. You can apply this to other metrics of happiness like being in good health, having a supportive family, having a hobby or a job that fulfills you. I’m not breaking new ground here. Many people may not admit this truth, but most people agree with this truth in practice. If that wasn’t the case, money wouldn’t be so alluring.

BUT…

Money as an elixer for happiness has rapidly diminishing returns. There’s some disagreemnt on where exactly that happens, but most economists agree it’s somewhere in the range of 75k-100k a year. “Why does that matter?” I hear my imaginary audience asking. The reason this matters is because the difference between making 100k a year and 10 million a year isn’t quality of life; it’s stability and security.  Someone in the 75-100k income bracket is about two strokes of bad luck away from plummeting back into the classic millenial debt and 3 roommates financial gutter. If the local bank manager loses their job then gets cancer while their in between jobs, they’re just as fucked as the rest of us. Someone who makes 10 million dollars a year is essentially immune from this. They have enough saved wealth and liquid assets that they can survive anything short of a total economic apocalypse or their own gross mismanagement.

This is where athletes come in. They have the superficial appearance of someone with the sort of unassailable CEO type wealth with their flashy news-making contracts, but their economic station is much more comparable to the house of cards I described for the 75-100k earner bracket. Consider the following

  • Most professional athletes earn almost all of their lifetime wages in a 5 to 10 year span. That means their lifetime earnings are much more comparable to a well off doctor’s then that of Disney CEO Bob Iger.
    • HOWEVER – because their receiving these earnings lump sum instead of over a lifetime. A greater portion of this income is taxed.
    • AND – on top of that. They get an extra portion taken out of their paycheck for paying for the agents who negotiate their contracts, the trainers who keep their performance level up and ensure their livelyhood, and the nutritionists who keep their bodies in peak physical condition.
  • Athletes are one bad cut or trip away from losing their livelyhoods. Doctors and Lawyers don’t have to worry about tearing their ACL’s.
  • Athletes have very few alternative career opportunities if they are unable to continue playing the sport they’ve spent their entire lives specializing in because they don’t want to or physically can’t anymore. The lucky ones can get into coaching and broadcasting. A few with the recquisite talent and name recognition can flip an athletic career into an acting, modeling, or music career.  But for the majority, they’re pretty much stuck with what resources they’ve acquired during their playing careers.
  • Keep in mind, flashy big numbers like Alex Rodriguez’s famous $317 million dollar contract are the exceptions, not the norm. I would classify an athlete with this type of contract more into the CEO Bob Iger type category of wealth, but this only accounts for maybe 15 to 20 American athletes in a given decade. Comparitively, The average NFL player makes about $6 milion dollars in their career, and the average MLB player makes about $18 million. Remember what I said above. Athletes lose a greater portion of this income to taxes and career expenses than other professionals. A pediatrician making an average of 156k a year for 35 years of their career will make reasonably comparable  $5.46 million.

 

It’s important to accept my premise because professional sports unions have historically been shat on by just about everyone. It’s very easy to understand a steel worker making 12 dollars and hour telling these millionare babies to shut up and play. They don’t understand how much harder their fans have it, and besides, after a 12 hour shift, the last thing they want to deal with is not being able to watch their favorite entertainment because these spoiled millionares went on strike. That’s why I thought it was so important to spend so much time making my case that we shouldn’t view athletes like we do the traditional millionare class.

If we can accept the premise of my argument and are willing to accept professional athletes as part of the “working class”, than we can view the upcoming MLB and NFL labor fights in 2020 as Us (the average American working class) vs Them (the reptoid neo-capitalist billionares). Their fight becomes very important both symbolically and literally, and it’s made more important because these labor fights line up during and right after the 2020 presidential election.

Sports unions are one of the few institutions protecting workers’s rights that survived Reagan’s despicable anarcho-capitalism scourge. That is because they are one of the few unions with any forms or real leverage – mainly – name recognition. The NFL or MLB can have strikebusters have the league carry on with a vastly inferior product – and oh boy have they – but at the very least they can’t just fire and blackball all the athletes like Reagan did with air traffic controllers.

Baseball in particular is one of America’s most historically successful labor unions, and I want to end by mostly focusing on the MLB in particular. Anyone who has ever played a single inning of MLB baseball is guaranteed a 30,000 dollar annual pension and healthcare for life. In a society that has largely wiped out employers’s responsibility to provide healthcare and retirement, baseball players have survived neo-capitalism.

But their grasp is slipping.

Baseball players have lost the last few rounds of labor negotiations, and the cracks are starting to show. This brilliant Ringer article does a great job of breaking this down in detail, but I’ll summarize:

Baseball players have maintained their benefits and wages largely by giving the MLB concessions as far as paying new players is concerned. Baseball players used to be able to negotiate contracts with the team that drafted them when they entered the league. Although their leverage was still limited, since they could only negotiate with one team, they still had the option to essentially forego an entire year of their professional career if they were getting screwed over. This meant teams had to at least pay them somewhat-competitively. The 2016 labor agreement changed this – setting a hard limit on what new MLB players could be paid. New players could not negotiate at all because the MLB rules did not allow teams to offer players competitive prices. At the time, this seemed like a small concession to the union, since a player’s potential earning capacity was much greater later in his career anyway.

Unfortunately for baseball players, the MLB teams took a mile with the inch they were given. It is now common practice for teams to exploit every year and penny they can out of young players. By manipulating service rules, they can get an extra 1 or 2 years out of players while their pay and leverage is still restricted. Baseball players must also go through what’s called “arbitration.” Basically, a period of time where they can still only negotiate with one team, but a neutral arbitrator will decide the players contract if teams and players can’t negotiate a fair contract. The idea was that teams were incentivized to negotiate in good faith because they wanted to keep players after they were eligible to become true free agents and negotiate with all 30 teams. They don’t do this anymore, essentially letting most negotiations go into arbitration, which was designed to be a last resort. They don’t care about building up good will with players anymore because after squeezing 6-8 years out of production from them, they’d rather get 80% of the production out of the next rookie player for 1/10th of the cost.

The logical extreme has essentially broken baseball’s free market. Despite baseball’s overall revenue continuing to reach record highs, the overall salary paid out to players has decreased the last 2 years. When every team is trying to get 80% production out of rookies for 1/10th of the cost, then suddenly, there is no one left to pay the older free agents that were supposed to benefit by not having their salaries touched by the labor negotiation.

I won’t go into detail about the NFL – but its new economy is centered around a similar structure of exploiting rookie players on fixed-by-rule salaries so they don’t have to negotiate with older players.

This type of exploitation is brilliant in its simplicity, but in the end, it comes from the same classic Republican playbook. The GOP turned poor white people against poor hispanics and poor blacks. The professional sports leagues turned veteran players against rookies.

The difference is that American sports leagues by their nature must be completely transparent about the numbers, and that means there is no debate on what the billionare owners did to win their labor battle. In some ways, they’ve inadvertantly given up a larger game.

That is the lesson the American working class must learn if they’re ever to retake the welfare state and workers’s rights that was gained in the New Deal era. Upper-middle class americans loved promises of tax cuts by Reagan and H. W. Bush. They knew these tax cuts were funded by cutting Medicaid and Food assistance programs, but they didn’t care because it wasn’t their problem.

In 2017, the Republicans passed an already disasterous tax plan that dropped the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% – largely by passing these burdens (and the resulting budget deficit) on to the same upper-middle class Americans that previously benefited from tax cuts. In this metaphor, upper-middle class Americans are the veteran baseball players – screwed by the compromise they were supposed to benefit from.

If I know my audience, I know you, reader, are probably a middle to lower class liberal seeking to fix income inequality. You may scuff at the commas and zeroes you see on an athletes contract, but you should embrace them as some of our most powerful potential allies in the larger societal fight to come. We should side with them instead of letting multi-billion dollar corporations turn us against them in desperation to get back our cheap entertainment.

After all, if millionare athletes can’t win a labor fight, what the hell kind of chance do the rest of us have?

 

 

 

 

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