Get What You Deserve

Get What You Deserve

In last week’s TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less, I came to a startling revelation: Professional athletes make way too much money.  I know, truly groundbreaking journalism, but I like to think we also examined some of the fiscal ramifications of these exorbitant salaries for grown men playing sports.  Perhaps we don’t have to merely sit back and accept an economic phenomenon that has spiraled out of control.  Perhaps we can use the impact of our consumer spending power to reign in salaries for athletes.  I sure hope so because our culture is in a ton of trouble if we don’t.

Do you remember back when you were a kid and the teacher asked what you wanted to be as a kid?  You loved that exercise in daydreaming because you were not constrained by the realities of your talents or work ethic.  For one brief, shining moment, you could be whatever you wanted to be, if only in the world of make-believe.  Some kids wanted to be firemen.  Some wanted to be teachers.  One kid in my class wanted to be a lobbyist.  We laughed at him, but it was his dream nonetheless.

These days that selection process is far less eclectic.  Between my girlfriend and me, we have three young boys at home.  If asked that same question, the responses we would get would be: hockey player, soccer player, and lacrosse player.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s not an iota of real talent amongst them.  Yes, a couple of them are pretty good at their designated sport when playing against like-minded competition in the suburbs of Colorado, but c’mon, none of these kids is going to make their living playing sports.  They are simply not that talented and the numbers are stacked against them.  Less than 1% of high school varsity athletes go to college on an athletic scholarship for their sport, and only 1% of that esteemed group actually go on to make a living playing their sport on a professional level.

But that doesn’t keep these kids from dreaming.  Go into your local kindergarten class these days and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and you will be overwhelmed by how many opt for a career as a professional athlete.  While we would all probably appreciate the opportunity to make a living while only working eighty nights a year, that’s not the underlying motivation for these kids to dream of becoming athletes.  No, what they are really drawn to is the fame and fortune we as a society blindly heap upon a group of people who don’t truly deserve it.

Guess what vocations you won’t frequently hear in kids’ compendium of dream jobs: teachers, scientists, social workers, engineers- you know, the people we need in order to make our communities better, more productive places to live.  I’m not knocking athletes, and I readily confess that I love watching sports as much as any other red-blooded, heterosexual American male, but let’s not fool ourselves that they somehow make the world a better place.  More entertaining?  Sure.  But let’s not confuse that with the real work of community development and societal progress.  Charles Barkley might be great at shooting free-throws under pressure, but the only thing he can teach your children is how to make a mean White Russian with shaved ice.

We tend to think of the absurd money athletes earn as an isolated problem, unworthy of debate because it is relegated to such few individuals, but that thought fails to consider the larger ramifications these salaries have on our society.  In a market-based economy, salaries are allocated in a way that rewards a specific set of skills and abilities that society deems worthy and essential.  Doctors are handsomely remunerated for their efforts because they have to have certain given aptitudes and then hone those natural abilities through years of hard work and study.  Doctors save lives, and so we reward their profession with a wage that is commiserate with their societal importance and drives the best and brightest to the vocation.  What do football players do for us other than give us a common excuse for sixteen Sundays a year to ignore our family and hang out with friends drinking beer?  Not that I’m saying that’s not important, but given that they make more than most doctors earn in a lifetime, perhaps we might need to start reconsidering our priorities as a nation.

In 1958, Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term “meritocracy” for the notion that power, success and wealth should be distributed according to talent and diligence, rather than by accident of birth.  In the ideal world of Ayn Rand-type free market capitalists, this is precisely what the market does: It places relative values of compensation on the various professions one can eventually be rather than ascribing wealth and power based upon hereditary lineage.  The problem with the free-market dictating salaries is that it does so based upon supply and demand rather than actual worth to the society.  Sure, 350 pound freaks of nature than can both bench press 500 pounds and run the 40 yard dash in 4.5 seconds are few and far between, so their value to NFL football teams with boatloads of revenue to spend is exceptional indeed, but how much does their ability to protect a quarterback’s blind side actually make our society better?  They might make millions for their team, but do they educate our children so that they can someday become whatever they might dream of becoming?  Schools are not for-profit institutions so teachers do not impact the fiscal reality of a school, but isn’t what they do in teaching our kids day after day so much more valuable than that?  Is worth determined by how much money we bring in or by the degree to which we make the world a better place for all of us?

I know free-market purists don’t want to hear this, but we need to allocate wealth based on societal worth rather than profit motive if we really want to see our culture thrive and progress.  We need to pay teachers and doctors more than athletes because what they do is so much more vital to our growth as a nation.  Will we ever do this?  I doubt it.  But call me if we do.  Maybe then I’ll go back to teaching…

Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works.  Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at