Somewhere in heaven, baseball pioneer Curt Flood is smacking his forehead with his palm.
The reason for Flood’s exasperation?
Comments from avowed socialist and Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. On the stump, the Vermont senator is using baseball to decry the inequalities that crop up in capitalism.
“If we are a nation that can pay baseball players hundreds of millions of dollars, don’t tell me we can’t afford to pay teachers the salaries they deserve,” Sanders told a cheering crowd of followers.
No doubt this is a crowd pleaser at rallies where Sanders regularly rails against the free-market economy.
Conflating the money rich folk earn with the salaries of everyday folk is a standard canard in the class-warfare handbook of the progressive left. And while the re-ordering of the pay chain in Western societies is a huge societal issue, it’s ill served by this type of financial illiteracy.
This baseball millionaire versus ordinary guy meme has been around since the 1960s, which is apparently the last time Sanders had an original economic thought as he honeymooned in Brezhnev-era Moscow. In those days, this comparison was used by team owners and their media lackeys to thwart Flood’s Supreme Court challenge against baseballs reserve clause, which effectively bound a player to his current team for life.
“They want a fortune to play a kid’s game!” was the owners’ rallying cry.
Flood wanted players to be free agents when their contracts expired so they could enjoy an open market for their services at the peak of their abilities. While Flood lost his case in 1972, it did create a movement toward free agency in all major North American team sports.
The prince-like compensation enjoyed by today’s stars – some make $50 million a year – may be the only part of Sanders’ bloviation that has an ounce of truth to it. Free markets did that.
The rest of the asinine analogy coming from a presidential candidate is especially abrasive. The class warfare tripe has been regularly revisited in the half century since Flood’s challenge. Dim sportswriters, angry fans and socialists alike employ it. In my career – which has often concentrated on the financial tug of war between owners and their employees – I’ve been forced to debate any number of Sanders who whip out this chestnut to score a cheap debate sensation.
Here’s why Sanders is wrong:
• Athletes are free enterprisers. Teachers are civil servants. While baseball players are unionized and have collective agreements, their compensation is governed by a free market in a very, very lucrative industry.
Last year alone, Major League Baseball raked in about US$5 billion from its media and digital rights. Somebody has to make that money and the stars who fill the stands deservedly take a good slice of it.
By comparison, public school teachers’ salaries are products of rigid pay hierarchies that typically reward length of service, not skill. There’s no free market in public school systems.
• Top athletes represent just the bests one/one hundredth of a per cent of all the people in the world who play sport. Scarcity dictates their compensation.
Teachers are part of an enormous cohort that rarely distinguishes between superstars and abject failures.
Good or bad, there’s a teacher on every corner. Seniority is the most important factor governing their compensation.
• A top athlete has a window of about a decade to exploit their talent before age dictates their exit from the game. In most cases, the average career in an elite sport is closer to four years of earning potential (you make less money than teachers while playing in the minors). Teachers’ careers can last for up to five decades, with lucrative pensions in retirement.
• If a player is no longer producing at elite levels he must seek a teachers-level salary when his playing career ends in his 20s or 30s.
If a teacher is no longer producing at an elite level, they’re often protected by the union and can go years without working but still be compensated at the top end of the scale.
• Baseball aspires to everyone having a chance to reach the top.
Teachers’ unions aspire to making Democrats or Liberals and wobbly socialists reach the top.
• There’s no crying in baseball.
According to Sanders, crying is endemic to teachers’ compensation.
Please clip this column and keep it in your wallet or purse for handy reference next time you’re at a meeting or a party where some tender-hearted coercion artist like Bernie Sanders tells you we should pay teachers more than we pay baseball players. It’ll come in handy.
Because listening is not their strong suit, expect to have to remind them every generation of so. Their memories fade. Especially when they’ve been getting media approval for spreading this nonsense.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.