27 March 2011

On the NFL

A lot of voices have observed that this is an argument between billionaires and millionaires. While that's true, it's oversimplifying. Capitalism presumes that investment carries risk and therefore deserves a return. But no NFL franchise has lost money in at least a generation, and no franchise has failed since 1952. You'd be hard pressed to name another industry that has never had a business fail. Either NFL owners are brilliant businessmen (and before you try to make that claim, remember that Mike Brown is among them), or something else is at work. It's hard to make an argument that there's any risk at all, much less enough risk to justify the huge returns. What's worse, when large capital investments are required, the owners usually expect local taxpayers pick up the tab. NFL owners aren't small business men; they are robber barons.

You can have the NFL without owners, but you couldn't have the NFL without players. Put another way, it would be pretty easy to find 32 executives who could replace the existing owners without reducing the quality of the game. But if you had to replace the current rosters of players with others, the difference would be dramatic. The rarer commodity is on the field, not in the luxury box.

I've seen calls for fans to boycott the NFL when they return. I think this misses the point. The current situation is a direct result of American fans' apparently endless devotion to the sport. Skipping a game won't matter unless you don't pay for the ticket. But in saturated markets where season tickets have waiting lists, someone else will take your spot. And in weaker markets (e.g., Jacksonville), you just give the owners the excuse to move to another city. It's not as ridiculous as calls to boycott gasoline for a day, but it's not far from it.

I can't think of a single good reason why the NFL should have its current antitrust status. Monopolies kill markets. There is no market for franchises, just ask Los Angeles. Or maybe Minnesota when the Vikings move there. Monopolies allow teams to coerce cities to build stadiums. The same cities which are laying off teachers.


Every player in the NFL last year earned more than my annual salary. But that doesn't in itself mean they're overpaid. For one thing, my career is already longer than Brett Farve's was, and I've still got a few productive years ahead of me. Preparing for a career as a professional athlete requires near total commitment. That there are a handful who manage a meaningful degree doesn't change the fact that most NFL players have a short career, and are not particularly well prepared for life after football. With an average career length of around three years, a likelihood of debilitating pain in their later years (not to mention the brain damage sustained from concussions), and limited post-NFL job skills,I take no issue that they are paid more than me.

Nobody is forced at gunpoint to buy season tickets, buy jerseys, pay for DirecTV's, watch the games, play fantasy football, or even pay attention at all. But a lot of people do all of those things, and there's a big pile of money as a result. The players are the product we're paying for. Obviously, the teams need money to pay the expenses. And the owners are executives who have a right to significant compensation. But if the choice is between having each NFL franchise throw off another 10 million in cash to the owner every year (and the amount in dispute is more than that) or to distribute it to the players, I'm afraid I think the guys out on the field are earning it.

I must acknowledge that some NFL players are pretty unsavory. I'm not defending them (in some cases, I do think they shouldn't be allowed in the league), but it would be nearly impossible to field a competitive team of choirboys. That some miscreants get paid is a consequence of the very high value we put on success.