Opinion » Viewpoint

Three Strikes

Greed is becoming the ugly American pastime.


Professional sports often reflect, and sometimes shape, important currents in American life. For example, the indignities of racial discrimination were easily ignored by white Americans until Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Only when racial segregation was dramatized by the national pastime did the demand for racial justice become a visible national issue.

And so it is with major-league baseball and corporate economics. The greed that fueled the stock-market bubble and crash is mirrored in major-league baseball. And now, greed threatens to cause a walkout (one dare not dignify it by calling it a "strike") by baseball players that would abort the season just when the pennant races are heating up. The dynamics of the baseball dispute shed light on the current corporate scandals. As Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot just by watching."

The issues that may lead to a September walkout include revenue sharing to minimize the financial advantage (and hence competitive edge) that big-market teams have over their small-market opponents and a "luxury tax" that, like revenue sharing, would distribute money from high-salary teams to those that can't now afford high-salaried star players.

Both the National Football League and the National Basketball Association have variations of sporting socialism. Both leagues encourage competition by divvying up media revenues and capping the total amount of money a team can pay for player salaries. Baseball, however, insists on free- market economics (except, of course, when owners demand taxpayer money to build their private stadiums).

Money determines all. Big markets and rich owners determine team competitiveness. Those teams without either rarely become part of a pennant race.

Baseball players are more concerned with their salaries than they are about the competitiveness of the sport. It's the same in the corporate world, where top executives expect and get more money even if their leadership stinks and their companies fail. The average salary for a major-league ball player is $2.4 million. The elite get over $10 million per year; the scrubs who rarely play are guaranteed $200,000.

The corporate world has an even more inequitable disparity. According to the AFL-CIO, the average CEO for a major corporation received $15.5 million in total compensation in 2001, more money than the salary of all but the four highest-paid ball players. Just as player salaries increased as league revenues declined, median CEO pay grew 7 percent despite a 35 percent decline in corporate profits. In other words, merit had nothing to do with pay. Failure is financially remunerative -- more so in the corporate world than in the major leagues, though that's hard to believe.

Where does it end? What is the salary cap for greed? According to Business Week, the average CEO earns 531 times more than the average hourly worker. (In 1980, the ratio was 42:1; in 1990, 85:1.) By contrast, Texas Rangers' shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who gets $25 million, earns "only" 125 times the amount of the lowest-paid bench-warmer.

The owners willingly pay these salaries by passing their costs on to the fans who, up until now, haven't seemed to care. On average, it costs $228.73 for a family of four to attend a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. This includes a decent ticket, parking, hot dogs, sodas, scorecards, baseball caps for the kids, and a couple of beers. Ten years ago, the most expensive park was in Toronto, where the average cost for the same items was $106.69. In other words, the cost of attending a game has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

The owners cry poverty but refuse to show their books. They take public money to build their stadiums but insist that they are private corporations when issues of financial propriety are involved. The public has subsidized both corporate and baseball greed. But will we tolerate another baseball stoppage?

It is greed that motivates the current baseball dispute. And it's greed that also motivates corporate economics. Until this country deals with greed, the economy, like baseball, will always be prone to error and loss.

Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont. This column first appeared on AlterNet.org.

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