Playing fair: the oddly inequitable world of team sport

“People — for all our differences politically, regionally, economically — most folks understand sports. Probably because it’s one of the few places where it’s a true meritocracy. There’s not a lot of BS. Ultimately, who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s performing, who’s not — it’s all laid out there.”

So said US President Obama in a March 2012 interview with Bill Simmons of ESPN, setting out his view of why sport seems so engaging*.

It’s a view shared by many.

Yet in a summer of much remarkable sport, including events in 2021 proudly badged as 2020, having been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic (congratulations, Italy; thank you, Tokyo), the stories that stick particularly are more suggestive of unfairness and the sense in which elite sport has become unhealthily detached from the rest of humanity – perhaps even detached from reality. Meritocracy may not matter as much as Obama says; community definitely does matter.

The sight of Indian Premier League (cricket) games continuing with all the razzmatazz of that competition whilst the latest wave of the pandemic swept by outside the stadiums felt almost obscene. Rarely has the language of Covid ‘bubbles’ for sports competitors seemed a more apt term. The reason the League (the richest competition in cricket) finally gave for calling off the tournament in May was safety of players and support staff, so it cannot be said with confidence that the IPL had come to its senses and recognised that the contrast inside and outside stadiums was unsupportable. But no doubt player embarrassment played some part in the decision-making, as well as the fear of illness.

That obscene sight occurred at the same time as the obscenity of the greed of the attempted breakaway European Super League for 12 of the continent’s leading football (soccer) clubs. Announced on April 18th, the concept had fallen apart within just 48 hours as the six English clubs withdrew. That withdrawal was remarkable as none of the clubs involved can have imagined the announcement would have been welcomed. Indeed, the fury of fans – who feel they have greater ownership of their clubs than those with mere legal title to them – was entirely predictable. The extent to which either fan pressure or political influence led to the abandonment perhaps will never be known, but the sight of politicians who care nothing for football talking about the importance of its traditions was at least a source of brief amusement.

These two parallel events suggest that the apparent meritocracy of sport may make some active in it believe that they are above criticism. It does seem to be true that there is more perfect information about skill and performance commitment in sport than in most careers (“it’s all laid out there,” as Obama says), enabling a more vigorous negotiation on the value that individuals bring to sporting clubs. Particularly in situations where there is free negotiation on salaries because of an absence of salary caps (introducing such caps was an important element of the European Super League plans – seen as necessary to make the financials work) and scope for player transfers between clubs, player salaries can rise dramatically.

For example, Lawrence Kahn (now a professor at Cornell) in a study of the US sports labour market notes a 38% rise in salaries in the year free agency arrived in baseball, and a further 22% rise the following year. Scope for such negotiation enables leading sporting stars (more specifically, their agents) to negotiate for greater reward, in effect taking the bulk of the benefit of increased media revenues. It is this that leads many clubs, despite their millions in revenues, to remain in precarious financial positions. As with many over-levered companies, the Covid-19 pandemic created additional pressure which made these debt burdens unsupportable – this seems to have been the key driver for the announcement of the European Super League.

But those events show also that the source of those media revenues, the fans, still have some influence. The fact is that strong tribalism about teams persists even despite the footloose international ownership of clubs and the mercenary guns-for-hire nature of many star players. This visceral tribalism, and its political sway, turns out to be enough to influence decision-making even among those divorced from the reality of the lives of those fans.

The community nature of sports, their grounded reality in society, turns out to be more important than many may have believed. The freedom that the apparent sporting meritocracy brings – whereby stars believe they are worth the huge sums that they are paid, and others around the sports also enjoy inflated salaries and inflated self-worth through proximity – turns out to be less important than the ongoing consent of the fans. Fans do not tend to complain about player salaries (unless an individual clearly underperforms the riches lavished upon him or her) or the broader excesses of the sporting world, but there is a sense in which this is only acceptable because of ongoing communal consent. Clubs take risks if they overstep the mark and lean too far on the apparent meritocracy of sport.

There is some sense too that meritocracy still has further to travel. Perhaps the story of the sporting summer was the distinct unfairness of the treatment of American Football players with brains damaged by repeated shocks to their head in the crashing contacts that make the sport such a spectacle.

Under so-called race-norming, black players were assumed to have had a lower starting cognitive ability than their white counterparts and so would receive smaller pay-outs from the $1 billion fund established to settle claims related to concussion and brain damage. According to the latest report on awards (which do not disclose racial statistics), more than 3,200 claims have been considered and nearly 1,300 are payable, with under 1,100 denied; average pay-outs are over $0.6 million. A number of black former players argue that their claims have been denied entirely because of the racism inherent in race-norming. The NFL only belatedly agreed to abandon the process in June this year.

Racism persists across sport. The shocking response by a few to the English football team’s failure (yet again) in a penalty shoot-out, no doubt permissioned in part by the response by some who should have known better to booing of players taking the knee against racism, shows that. But the strength of the anger that answered that racism, and the majority strong support for the players for taking the knee, shows that racism is eroding. Many fans recognised that the taking of the knee was a part of the team bonding as a team greater than the sum of its parts, and so played a key role in its progress through the competition. That team-building was (coach) Gareth Southgate’s gift to a mostly grateful nation.

Again, community appeared to triumph against a noisy minority. We have some way to go to real fairness, but sport – for all its tribalism – continues to work to bring people together.

I disagree with Obama. I don’t think it is seeming meritocracy that attracts people to sport. I think it is the sense of shared endeavour – a sense that exists even for those who only spectate. Of course, playing fields must be fair and referees and umpires unbiased. But it is the shared experience, the drawing of a community together, that is the key to why sport moves us. Long may it work to bring us together in joy.

See also: Bowling Together

* I am grateful to Michael Sandel’s remarkable The Tyranny of Merit for referencing this quote.
Read the book. It will change how you think.

I am also grateful to my friend Ben for encouraging me to write in this area, and for the thoughts inspired by his university dissertation.

US President Barack Obama interview with Bill Simmons of ESPN, the BS Report podcast, March 1 2012

VIVO IPL 2021 Postponed, IPL press release, May 4 2021

The Sports Business as a Labor Market Laboratory, Lawrence Kahn, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol 14 No 3, Summer 2000

NFL Concussion Settlement August 2021 summary report

NFL pledges to stop ‘race-norming,’ review past scores for potential race bias, June 2 2021