The wage slaves of professional football have taken to shaking hands before dislocating each other's shoulders in games. This incendiary handshaking is part of a class struggle in which the working stiffs (a proletariat averaging $83,800) are advocating that 55 percent of the NFL's gross revenues be set aside for players. "We are," they say, "the game."
The owners respond with a comparably inane morsel of morality: any percentage-of-the-gross agreement would violate capitalist practice. Actually, the owners live by one kind of socialism, and the players want their own version.
The pleasant but awkward fact for management is that it is hard for an owner to lose money. The NFL's new TV contract gives each team $14 million a year -- an $8 million-a-year increase. Many, perhaps most, teams are near the break-even point before they sell a ticket.
Football players have short, high-risk careers, yet are paid on average about half what baseball players make. Three baseball players -- Mike Schmidt (Phillies), Dave Winfield (Yankees), Gary Carter (Expos) -- are making a total of $5.3 million this year, more than the Dallas Cowboys' entire 45-man roster. But football is a game of manic specialization ("Here comes the third-and- short-yardage passing-situation nose- guard!"), which is one reason why such comparisons are not illuminating. Still, football players are generally underpaid, relative to the sums football generates.
What pulled up salaries in baseball and basketball was free agency -- clubs bidding for players in a relatively free market. The football players' union emphasizes a percentage of the gross rather than free agency because it believes that the NFL's egalitarian revenue-sharing policies have reduced the owners' incentive to win, and hence the incentive to bid for players. That may be true, but this certainly is: a competitive spirit causes many owners to become owners. There are easier ways to make money.
Competition between professional teams is not like competition between shoe stores. Every team wants every other team to be competitive. Revenue sharing and other aspects of "NFL socialism" work: since 1970, all but two teams have made the playoffs, and 15 have made the Super Bowl.
The players' union wants the 55 percent of gross divided according to a formula based primarily on years of service, with various bonuses for such achievements as selection to the Pro Bowl, and making the playoffs. It would narrow pay differentials, but would increase the rewards for team excellence. (You see -- more socialist collectivism.) The owners say that any percentage-of-gross formula dilutes their ownership by compromising the privacy of their private property. They have a point. They would have more of one if their private enterprise were less permeated with public involvements.
Most stadiums are built and maintained at public expense. Football is a labor-intensive industry, and the job training is done at public institutions (e.g., Ohio State) and private institutions with tax and other subsidies (e.g., Southern Cal). Most of the revenue for the revenue sharing comes from a publicly regulated oligopoly (the three networks). The fact that local governments give -- and receive -- much in cooperative relationships with NFL teams gives, alas, a patina of plausibility to the nutty action of the city of Oakland, which is waging a -- thus far; stay tuned -- losing fight to keep the Raiders from migrating to Los Angeles.
Oakland fans bought 50,000 season tickets and provided 12 straight sellout seasons, making the Raiders perhaps the NFL's third-most-profitable franchise. But the owner decided to move for an entrepreneurial reason: LA is a more lucrative market. Furthermore, there is a political enticement: the Raiders have been given a, well, considerate arrangement with regard to the Coliseum, which, like the surrounding neighborhood, needs the business. The Coliseum needs the business because the city of Anaheim lured away the Rams.
California's Supreme Court has ruled that the city of Oakland can go to trial with its attempt at Bolshevik confiscation: the city wants to seize the Raiders through its power of eminent domain. And Congress, having made America all but perfect, is contemplating a finishing touch: legislation to return the Raiders to Oakland and strengthen restrictions on the right to move franchises. Isn't that the sort of public service the Constitutional Convention had in mind when allocating powers to the federal government?
Football always has been reflective of modern life -- violence punctuated by committee meetings. Now it incorporates America's two principal pastimes -- litigating and legislating. And -- hark! what discord follows! -- there may be a strike. Be brave, fans, and remember: God strengthens the back to the burden.