It’s Labor Day in the USA today, and so it seems a good moment to talk about a flourishing US industry that is built on socialist lines. Every year, by general agreement, the most talented new staff are allocated to the weakest firms to ‘keep things fair’. Firms are subject to salary caps and/or taxes on excessive wages (are you listening, Wall Street?). Strikes are commonplace. And the US is not only the world leader, it virtually has a global monopoly. Welcome to American Football, and professional US sport in general.
I’m teaching a short course at the University of Notre Dame at the moment, and the University appears to revolve around the ‘Fighting Irish’ as its (largely black) football team (in the American sense, with apologies to diehard soccer fans everywhere) is known. They had their first game of the season yesterday, a 35-0 massacre of a truly dismal team from Nevada, and while struggling to understand the tactics underlying the basic logic of big guys banging into each other, I was also perplexed about the structure of the sport. For a visitor from the extreme market Darwinism of European soccer, how can sporting socialism survive in the US?
Here’s how it works: every year each major professional team is given the right to select a player (generally a recent college graduate or an athlete than has chosen to enter the draft before college graduation). The order of selection in each round is in reverse order to the results of the previous season–i.e. the team with the worst record is given the first choice in each round and the previous year’s champion is given the last. This system applies in American Football and basketball and for all I know, other sports too. The result? Different teams rise and fall, and the Super Bowl changes hands most years.
Well that’s certainly more interesting (and appealing to the progressive heart) than the English soccer premiership, where the four teams (Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal) with the biggest pockets buy up all the talent and come top of the league year after year. But how has it survived? Why does America take such an egalitarian approach to sport, and not to the rest of life? Does sport constitute some national nice-guy alter ego, a place of refuge from the dog-eat-dog world of the economy?
And why haven’t the ten richest NFL clubs got together and said ‘screw that, we’re setting up our own league, negotiating our own TV rights etc’, which then either buys the best players or bypasses the college system altogether and sets up teams’ own youth academies (the idea of sports based on Universities sounds terribly quaint to English ears – shades of the glory days of amateur rugby and Oxford-Cambridge varsity matches).
There are some downsides to this socialist utopia. Firstly it has some incredibly annoying capitalist additions, like the fat guy with the luminous orange sleeve who marches onto the field and stops play when it’s time for TV commercials. Secondly, it generates a cartel where hardly any team ever gets relegated or promoted. No Schumpeterian creative destruction here. In fact, it reminds me of the failed efforts at import substitution in Latin America in the 60s and 70s, which in many countries produced inefficient protected local monopolies that were seldom able to break into exports. Maybe that’s the reason the US has generally failed to export its sports, except through direct invasion (e.g. baseball in Central America and Caribbean)? The same redistributive draft system applies in Aussie rules football, another failed export – does that constitute a pattern? Over to American (and Australian) readers to fill me in.
Update: turns out this is a hot topic, not least because of proposals to impose US-style salary caps on teams like Chelsea and Manchesters City and United. See here for the take from the Guardian’s political correspondent. So, all you progressive Man U and Chelsea fans, which side are you on?