A-Rod and Inequality: A Lesson Worth Learning

Sam Pizzigati

Huge rewards for ‘talented’ people are supposed to leave all our lives much better than before. But they don’t — not in sports or any of the rest of life either.

Everything you really need to know about life, a fun best-seller posited a few years back, you learn in kindergarten. Like share everything and don’t take things that aren’t yours. But what if you want to go a little deeper into life’s mysteries? What if you want to better understand what happens when people don’t share — and you can’t fit yourself on a kindergarten stool?

No problem. Everything you need to know about inequality, about the perils of letting grand concentrations of wealth settle in the pockets of a few,you can actually learn, if you pay close enough attention, just by turning on your TV and watching ESPN’s SportsCenter all day.

Last week, lots of folks did tune in to SportsCenter — to hear superstar Alex Rodriguez, the nation’s highest-paid ballplayer, confess that, yes, he has indeed imbibed illicit performance-enhancing drugs.

All this drug taking, pundits and pols spent last week angrily pronouncing, sends a horrible message to the nation’s youth. True enough. But the Alex Rodriguez uproar also sends a powerful message about the perils of inequality, a message that the sports world seems to deliver, week in and week out, with a clarity we seldom see in the “real world” beyond the outfield fences.

Apologists for inequality, in whatever sphere they operate, regularly contend that the greater the rewards our society offers, the more the most talented among us will strive to succeed. The more they strive and succeed, the better off the rest of us will most certainly be.

In sports, none of these claims hold any water, as the story around “A-Rod” so grippingly reminds us.

That story starts in 2001, the year Rodriguez signed a ten-year, $252 million contract to play ball for the Texas Rangers. No pro athlete, at the time, had ever inked a deal anywhere near that mammoth.

subplugTom Hicks, the billionaire Rangers owner, justified the new contract with the same pep-talk PR we hear when corporate boards sign up a new celebrity CEO. Rodriguez would turn the Rangers franchise around, Hicks promised, and open up an era of untrammeled on-the-field success.

Baseball fans should have known better. High-priced stars seldom turn their new teams around. Rodriguez certainly didn’t. His new team struggled. In the meantime, the team he left, the Seattle Mariners, promptly tied an all-time baseball season record for wins.

Not a coincidence, says the research of Matt Bloom, a management expert at the University of Notre Dame business school. In the 1990s, Bloom subjected nine years worth of Major League baseball salary and performance data to close analysis. His research would draw one clear conclusion.

“The bigger the pay difference between a team’s stars and scrubs,” as the Wall Street Journal summed up Bloom’s findings, “the worse its record.”

But sports franchise owners, just like corporate boards of directors, continue to believe that mega millions act as an unbeatable incentive for excellence. They have that half right. Huge rewards do function as an incentive, just not for excellence. In life as people actually live it, the bigger the reward, the greater the incentive to do anything, no matter how risky or destructive, to win the reward — or, as in the A-Rod case, to justify it.

“When I arrived at Texas in 2001,” Alex Rodriguez told ESPN’s SportsCenter last week, “I felt an enormous amount of pressure. I felt like I had all the weight of the world on top of me and I needed to perform, and perform at a high level every day.”

So Rodriguez went reckless. He started taking banned drugs — at the risk of his health and reputation. That decision, at the time, probably seemed fairly reasonable. All around Rodriguez, other top ballplayers were making the exact same choice.

“For many years nobody in the sport cared who cheated,” Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell observed last week. “So, many did. For deals of up to $250 million, would any group of humans in history stay totally clean?”

In Corporate America, top executives don’t have to take drugs to score windfalls. In their chase after the golden ring, they typically engage in more socially destructive behaviors. They downsize and outsource jobs to boost their quarterly bottom lines. They wheel and deal companies, creating workplace chaos as they go. They even, at times, ship out tainted peanut butter.

Power suits in corporate boardrooms, ironically, often attempt to rationalize the rewards that prompt these behaviors by pointing to sports. CEOs may be making mints, the suits acknowledge, but just look at the stupendous fortunes pro athletes are making.

Let’s not. In reality, athletes earn nowhere near the paydays of power suits. Not one athlete has ever entered onto the annual Forbes 400 list of America’s wealthiest. Alex Rodriguez, the highest-paid athlete of them all, would have to make ten times more a year than he currently does, new IRS stats make clear, to merely match the average of America’s 400 highest annual incomes.

The real money in sports is going to team owners. They regularly pocket lush taxpayer subsidies for new ballparks and arenas that send the market value of their franchises soaring. These owners also never need worry about finding potential buyers when they take their teams to market. The growing concentration of America’s wealth has left the top of America’s economic ladder packed with investors able and eager to shell out half a billion or more for a pro sports franchise.

And where has all this inequality, in and around sports, left sports fans? Many can no longer afford to take their families to ballgames. Watching at home, they stew and steam as endless two- and three-minute commercial breaks — how broadcasters guarantee themselves an adequate return on the billions they fork over to owners for broadcast rights — disrupt the ebb and flow of game competition..

Even worse, inequality has soured the basic relationship between sports teams and the fans who follow them. Sports has become just another commodity. Owners now treat the sports-loving public as consumers in markets, not fans from communities. And that public has internalized this commodification.

“Instead of hoping that your team wins, you begin to demand it,” as sportscaster Bob Costas has noted. “It’s like you bought a car and if it doesn’t work, you want to know why. When a team doesn’t win, instead of disappointment or heartbreak, you now have anger and resentment.”

And predictably so. Some emotions inequality always delivers.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality.

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