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Why the NFL Really Stands for Capitalism

Josh Zerkle

There's a noted political pundit out there with a solid riff about how pro football's popularity is rooted in the league's socialist attributes. Bill Maher, or as I like to think of him, Jon Stewart 1.0, credits the NFL's so-called quest for fairness as the driving force behind the NFL's popularity in America and that our country's political leaders should take the hint. While that dichotomy of a "capitalist" nation being so endeared with a "socialist" enterprise is fun, it's almost entirely wrong.

First of all, insinuating that a professional football league is comparative to a $15 trillion economy is faulty without proper context. There are two separate economies that Maher seems to mash together in his rant: (1.) The NFL's relationship with its millions of fans and (2.) The relationships between the league's 32 teams.

The former is a legitimate economy, where transactions are made and profits and benefits can be maximized. The latter is not. While franchises do allocate certain outputs and inputs, the allocation is far from even slices of pie. And furthermore, those teams compete against each other on the field, not on the balance sheet. 

Maher's observations about the league's salary cap and redistribution of revenue, generally speaking, aren't inaccurate. But he makes a significant oversight: The NFL's modus operandi is not a federally-implemented initiative. It's a system that everyone agreed to implement and maintain.

"The NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poorer ones," Maher quips.

That's not exactly true.

The NFL doesn't take anything; the New Englands and Washingtons of the league pony up that money freely, of their own volition, without the impending duress of state force. If they failed to do so for whatever reason, it's not as if the NFL's Internal Revenue Service would be throwing Daniel Snyder in jail, even though that visual image would please fans all over the league.

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Let's take another step back. The NFL's salary cap was a recent invention, first implemented in the mid-1990s not to enhance competition, but to constrain labor costs to ensure profitability. If you're unfamiliar, turning a profit is somewhat important to someone running a business.

But the league has been sharing revenue from television for an even longer period, since the 1960s. But that was in an area when the NFL was taking a back seat to baseball, and many teams had yet to find the firm financial footing that we (and maybe even they) take for granted today.

And even those days were a far cry from the league's early days in the 1930s, where weaker franchises were either eliminated from the league or bought up and moved to more competitive markets. The NFL's collective didn't string along the Akron Bulldogs or Dayton Triangles out of some appeal for equality, and the league likely would have perished if it had tried.

So, the league's revenue sharing was less of a mechanism for "fairness and opportunity" and more of a survival tactic that pulled itself through a young, fragile sports market. In other words, it made the NFL, as a whole, more competitive. And the owners have been rewarded for that. Today's TV revenue is so large today that every team is guaranteed a profit.

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So what about the draft? Despite the stratified allocation of player talent, the NFL's draft process has become gradually more capitalist over time. That is to say, shorter. In 1948, the NFL draft was 32 rounds long, meaning that nearly an entire roster's worth of rookies were locked into one team with which they could negotiate. Today, the draft is only seven rounds long, and those undrafted players maintain an opportunity to negotiate with any of the league's 32 teams.

As for the league's obvious constraints on wages, those practices were agreed upon by owners and collectively bargained with the league's workforce, the players. There was no imperialist kommissar that dictated terms to the populace.

So while these measures aren't exactly market-friendly, they were achieved through a collective bargaining process in which all owners and players participated directly, with each group seeking opportunity to maximize its own benefit. And yes, the players entering the league have little say in what they'll earn in their first (and often only) NFL contracts, but it's still leaps and bounds above what they were getting paid in college—nothing.

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Here are a couple other points for people that actually know what socialism is: The NFL doesn't control the means of production, nor does the NFL field its own team to compete against its other 32 owners. It is strictly a regulatory entity, enforcing the "rules of the game" in accordance with the wishes of the teams. Aside from labor and revenue, teams hire their own coaches, sell their own tickets and operate their franchises in other ways that they see fit. 

And through all of the measures listed above, a lot of teams are still terrible. Do you think we'll see the Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns in the playoffs any time soon? Maybe the other 30 owners should be giving them bigger checks. Wouldn't that solve the problem?

If there's anything socialist about the act of playing a football game, I must be missing it. There's no league-mandated "mercy" rule when scores get lop-sided (sorry, Jacksonville). Points are not reallocated to the losing team to make them more competitive.

If the Saints score 62 points against the Colts, they keep all 62. They don't put 10 of those points in an envelope and mail it off to Roger Goodell. Nor does the NFL step in and pull Drew Brees off the New Orleans roster and send him to the Vikings. How fair would that be to the fans of a team that put so much effort into not sucking?

Teams aren't extensively regulated, and they're rewarded for their good decisions. If Tom Coughlin makes two successful challenges in a game, he is rewarded with a third. If the 49ers can't put the ball in the end zone for seven, they can still kick a field goal for three points, and they did that a lot this year. And if they miss that kick, there's no defensive "safety net" that prevents the other team from getting a short field.

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As good choices are rewarded, teams are stuck with the consequences of bad choices. Going for it on 4th-and-1? You'd better get that yard, especially in your own territory. Throwing on first down? Sounds aggressive, but if the cornerback jumps your out route, you'd better hope that your quarterback can tackle. And don't even get me started with the prospect of signing Terrell Owens.

But these elements of America's game are traits consistent with capitalism, an economic system that offers rewards and consequences in a market with minimal state interference. And while the league does feature some equality of opportunity, it doesn't guarantee equality of outcome. Otherwise, we'd have 32 teams finishing 8-8 every year, and that would be, literally, the most unrewarding sport imaginable.

Even Maher admits that he hasn't watched a Super Bowl since 2004. That explains a lot.


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