“Fairness” in sports

My brother Conor (when he’s not blogging about political theory) does some excellent writing about Barcelona’s dominant football team. A couple weeks ago, he took up the age-old topic of fairness in sports in the context of European soccer. In most European leagues, there are no salary caps, revenue sharing agreements, or redistributive drafts. Rather than coddling the worst teams, leagues bust them down a division. Conor defends the uncontrolled European league structures with a call to the benefits of an aristocratic class:

There’s no escaping it. [Barcelona’s] degree of perfection requires an unequal distribution of talent and resources. This concatenated brilliance is probably unjust when measured against nearly any standard of fairness—but it’s also as close as anyone has yet come to fulfilling that specific style of play. FC Barcelona are but one example. For instance, recent Chelsea squads have flirted with perfection of a wholly different style of play. They are no less aristocratic simply because they have refined different aspects of their squad. Their strengths may be different, but they are no less refined for that. Every coat of arms is different—the aristocratic task for each is to live up to their particular identity. Undemocratic though they are, no one will mistake them for ordinary.

For whatever else they do to The Game As A Whole (or As A Spectacle), aristocratic clubs elevate the stakes and—more often than not—the peaks of athletic achievement. If Barcelona regularly administers whippings to clubs in La Liga’s middle and lower echelons, their clásico jousts with Madrid have periodically taken both teams yet closer to the pinnacle of sport.

I find this topic endlessly interesting, especially the comparison between United States leagues and European leagues.  The United States redistributes less income proportionally than many other developed nations. We are a country of free markets where working class citizens pull themselves up by their bootstraps. When it comes to sports, however, we want “fairness.” Three of the major U.S. sports leagues have salary caps and the fourth has a luxury tax. All four leagues share revenue; the most popular league – the NFL – probably redistributes the highest fraction. All four leagues have a reverse order draft in which the worst teams pick first. Economic theory predicts that welfare payments discourage work. In the same vein, we see substantial tanking in response to reverse-order drafts in the NBA.

Across the pond, we see something quite different. In countries with bloated social safety nets, soccer leagues operate with no salary caps or drafts (in part so that the leagues in each country can compete against each other), but remain highly successful. Is Conor’s point correct? It seems that either type of league can thrive, but it’s curious that the sports don’t match the economics and politics.

Conor also wrote recently about one of my favorite soccer players, Carles Puyol. This guy plays soccer more like rugby. We complain about “floppers” in the NBA, but basketball flopping doesn’t compare to “diving” in soccer at all. It’s not just the diving, but the attitude that goes along with it. In U.S. sports, if a guy gets shoved or punched, the players often have to be separated. In soccer, if a finger brushes someone’s nose, he falls down like he was shot and then rolls around for awhile (if he thinks the ref is looking anyway). Many argue that an unwillingness (or inability) to take dives has harmed U.S. soccer at the international level. My dream is to have Kevin Garnett and Brian Urlacher patrol the sidelines and — at their discretion — go slap guys around that fake injuries. Needless to say, Puyol would get along with the enforcers just fine.

3 responses to ““Fairness” in sports

  1. Thanks, guy!

    If I could write the first one again, I’d call it “Sport: Pinnacles or Parity?” European club soccer leagues aren’t just flourishing…they’re approximating a higher plane of athletic excellence. We see something like this in Major League Baseball: while the Red Sox and Yankees make the playoffs five or six times for every one time that most average clubs make the playoffs, their accumulation of talent makes their matchups consistently compelling.

    For example, I root for the Tigers. If I’m given a chance of watching the Padres play the Brewers OR the Red Sox play the Yankees, I’m picking the latter every time. It’s not a matter of East Coast elitism; I just prefer watching better baseball.

    Something like that is going on in England, Spain, and Italy (the Bundesliga is surprisingly fluid, and Ligue 1 is surprisingly lower-tier in comparison). Even if the range of potential league champs is narrow, the heightened stakes (and substantial resources) elevate their game quite a bit.

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