“We think we know what we’re doing. We don’t know a thing. It’s all in past now. Money changes everything” — Cindy Lauper
I’m sitting in a hotel in New Hampshire watching Headline News and they’re talking about a new doping scandal in baseball. A coach comes on and talks about “the effect on baseball”, which is, frankly, nice to hear. The question for me, though, is “What does it say about us that this scandal exists?”. Doping is clearly nothing new. Lance Armstrong did it. Past baseball players have done it. I’m sure pro football players have done drugs in some way to “get that edge”. I’m sure pro basketball players have done it for the same reasons.
My question is “why?”. The answer is somewhere in what we used to call The Human Condition and our view of humans as financial transactions. I think it was in 1972 when Curt Flood told Howard Cosell that baseball players were “slaves — well paid slaves, but slaves nonetheless” and started the movement toward free agency and the baseball players union. What he didn’t know was that he and his peers in professional sports would be trading one form of slavery for another. Now, instead of players in the old system being traded around because the team owners felt like it, players are slaves to their own net worth, to their publicists, to their endorsement companies, to their fans, and to their own egos. I’m not sure which is worse for them. I’m pretty sure which is better for baseball and which is better for us.
Baseball was the American pastime. Now it’s more likely to be football, or — in urban centers — basketball. Soccer and Lacrosse are trendier but they are not anywhere near the popularity of the other three. Hockey is probably in the top four somewhere, depending on where you live. But baseball always had an aura of purity about it — people played for the love of the game, not for the big money to be made. This is why the doping scandal feels like such a violation. Football players already feel like ogres, so doping makes them more grotesque. Basketball players have an urban feel, so any such scandal would be further proof of the drugs/city link. Hockey is stereotypically full of bruisers, so that alcoholism is more in line with any scandal there. And frankly, nobody minds if there are a few more fights in hockey.
But each of them suffers from — to a larger or smaller degree — money. I know, anybody reading this will think “Oh, there’s a problem I could have”. They would be wrong. If we look at lottery winners, their happiness (after the ecstasy of winning) goes down the tubes quickly because so many other people are willing to “relieve them” of their money. People who don’t know them see them as funding. People who do know them have their own dreams that could be “fixed” with money. People that are somewhere in the middle — distant relatives and the like — try to become more than they are for the sake of the money. The winners themselves face the challenge of Everything They Have Ever Wanted and people telling them how they “deserve” it. These are the same people who would like to use the yacht, the villa, the helicopter, the 10 new cars, and wired for sound house, etc themselves or would like to sell such things to the lottery winner. The winner’s identity then becomes subsumed by their money. Do the hangers on like them for their money or for themselves? They will never know. As bad as all this is, there is no belief that these winners can control their own destiny. No one says, “If you only worked harder, you could have won even more money” or “If only you were smarter, sexier, more intelligent, you could have won the lottery even better”. Luck is the point of that fantasy.
But pro ball players are told that all the time. They are told, “if you hit the ball farther, or more often, or both, you can make more money”. The flip-side of that coin is that nearly all pro-ball players — because of their union — make very good money to play this game. As this money becomes more and more possible, the people giving that money more bang for their buck. The owners want to win — and feel compelled to win. Sponsors also want winners that they can take credit for. Fans want to know their $75.00 ticket was worth it. The TV station wants big ratings for their big contracts. Cities want their team to get The Big Contract from the network and everybody wants to live above the fray of working and worrying about money.
Here’s the thing, though: pro sport players have already won the genetic lottery. That’s what got them to be pros in the first place. In order to play a pro sport, you must be extraordinary. These people are already at the top of the Bell Curve and are probably better than most of us can even imagine, so we pay them more than your average person. That’s the theory. Because they are Supermen, we pay them like one.
The laws of physics have not, however, changed. People still develop and age. Balls are still the same shape. Bats are still made of wood or aluminum. The football is still shaped the same way. The basketball is still the same shape and material and the hoop is still regulation height. No amount of exercise is going to change that. I don’t know of any studies that say that A-Rod is a better athlete than Henry Aaron or Babe Ruth or that any pro player today is better than George Blanda in football or that their will ever be as great a basketball player as Michael Jordan or that Jordan is that much better than Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell to explain Jordan’s more-than-God’s salary.
So, here’s what it comes down to: nothing has really changed but the money. People like to believe otherwise, but it’s not true. People who are already in the 99th percentile of ability can not push it much beyond that without changing the part of their equipment that they control — their bodies. The difference between 99 and 99.2 percentile is only changeable beyond nature, yet we expect the player of today to be superhuman. Why? Because we — and they — think that because we pay them, we own them. Because we pay them more, they owe us more. They become, like the lottery winner, subsumed by the amount of money they make.
Furthermore, if they don’t give us more, they fall to earth and have to have a connection between work and money — the very thing we’re paying them not to do! We want to believe that it’s possible to win the lottery — genetic or otherwise — to seldom (if ever!) work and have Everything You’ve Ever Wanted. And as long as the athletes believe that, too, there will be doping scandals, or drug scandals or cheating of some sort because we — and they — want to believe in immortality (which we don’t have), super strength (which we also don’t have) and more resources than we will ever need (which they do have, but most of us don’t). When we accept the notion that Jordans or Ruths or Montanas just happen and we can’t do anything to change that, when we stop people as commodities, when we decrease the difference between working / financial anxiety and barely working/ no financial anxiety, this problem won’t go away.