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Complaining about player salaries is pointless

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It doesn’t help anyone; it only makes things worse.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals
Jorge Soler just signed a one-year deal worth more money than you or I will probably make in our respective lifetimes.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The other day I saw this image as I scrolled through my Facebook feed:

Something to ponder. The United States has become a place where entertainers and professional athletes are mistaken for people of importance. I’ve needed a doctor. I’ve needed a teacher. I need farmers every day. I have needed an auto mechanic, a plumber, a house painter, and a lot of other everyday people. But I have never, not even once, needed a pro athlete, a media personality, or a hollywood entertainer for anything!

It reminded me of one of the running jokes on this website where we estimate various dollar amounts in “teacher salaries” because teachers are so woefully underpaid while professional baseball players make a great deal of money. But mostly it made me think how incredibly privileged the person who wrote this post must be that they can’t see the many ways they’ve needed those kinds of people in their lives.

Entertainment is necessary

In the late 1970s, a group of scientists performed an experiment on drug addiction, colloquially known as Rat Park. They were attempting to prove that addiction has as much or more to do with one’s circumstances as it does with the addictive properties of the drug itself. Their initial findings, at least, supported this conclusion. There was a set of rats that lived in bare cages with no social interaction. Another set lived in the “Rat Park” which allowed for socialization, balls and wheels for play, and plenty of space. Both sets had access to two water dispensers; one had plain tap water and the other had sweetened water laced with heroin. The experiment showed that the rats in cages with no social interaction or entertainment options were far more likely to choose the heroin water while the rats in Rat Park would occasionally try it but none of them appeared to become addicted to it. Rats who felt they had a good life didn’t see a need for drugs; rats who had lives bereft of the things that gave them joy sought them out and easily became addicted.

We do need athletes and entertainers. They demonstrably improve our lives. Professional sports team can help give people a sense of community and can provide joy. The same is true of fandoms for various forms of entertainment. Professional athletes can also inspire kids to be more active and provide examples of what hard work and determination can lead to. Even if you don’t care for sports or Hollywood movies this sort of logic just as easily applies to painters, musicians, writers, and other artists. Just because they provide a service or good that isn’t required for the bare minimum of survival doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary. After all, what’s the point of being a thinking being if you have only subsistence living quality?

Athletes (and other entertainers) earn those paychecks

I think there’s a logical disconnect between many of us and the paychecks that are earned by professional athletes and actors at the height of their industries. We see someone speaking a line of dialogue on TV or throwing a ball to someone else and we think about how we did those same things when we were children. It wasn’t that hard. It doesn’t seem right that someone should make as much money as they do when they’re doing something even a child can do.

The problem is, a child can’t do what they do. You know what else a child can do? Speak. And, after all, all a teacher does is speak, right? So why should a teacher get paid all that money for something a child can do? Of course, teachers do far more than speak. They create lesson plans, provide guidance, and grade assignments. Athletes do more than throw a ball, too. They spend hundreds hours studying film, honing their craft, and working out to improve or maintain their physical condition. It may seem like players can show up at five PM for their night game, but they’re often there much earlier. And don’t forget all the travel. Once you make it to the big leagues you get a private jet, but even in that scenario the travel can be very wearing on the body and mind. Becoming a professional athlete takes a lot more blood, sweat, and tears than we see on the field or court.

But not only do they do those things when it comes time to take the skills they’ve honed and provide the product they do it at a level that is higher than anyone else in the world can provide. So, of course, professional athletes make all that money. Literally, no one else is capable of doing what they do as good as they do it at the time they do it.

Much discord was caused by the presence of Chris Owings on the Kansas City Royals baseball team at the beginning of last season. He was, objectively speaking, bad at the sport of baseball. Except, that’s not true. He is, objectively speaking, one of the very best in the entire world at the sport of baseball. He just happens to be significantly worse than many of the other people he was playing against. When we watch these athletes perform every day and they make it look so simple it can be easy to forget just how astonishingly good even the worst of them is at what they do; they are each leaps and bounds better than 99% of the world population. Most of the world operates under the precepts of capitalism and that means when you’re that much better at providing a good or service than everyone else, you’re going to get paid that much more than everyone else because they can supply something that no one else can, and there is a demand for it.

This sort of rhetoric helps no one

The example image at the top of this post is actively harmful. If you’re not paying attention you might not immediately realize it. You might think, “It’s calling for teacher salaries to be raised!” But it isn’t. It’s calling for people to devalue entertainers and artists. And if we do that it would not even benefit anyone.

For example, if everyone decided to protest baseball until they introduced a salary cap that meant no player could make more than $100,000 a year the players would be substantially harmed by the lost earning potential. Ticket prices would not be reduced, though. Or, if they were, they would not be reduced by as much as owners would save on salary. And while the salaries would remain frozen you would certainly expect ticket prices to continue rising into the future as owners found excuses whether in increased demand, increased quality of seats, or something else.

Even worse, for the purposes of the graphic, no teachers or plumbers would benefit, either. After all, baseball owners don’t pay their salaries. For all of the comparisons, there is no direct connection between the wages earned by pro athletes and teachers. If the Royals handed Alex Gordon a $100 million deal, no teacher salaries would be reduced to cover the cost. If the Royals don’t sign Adalberto Mondesi to a long-term extension no teacher salaries will be increased. The only people who benefit from athletes and actors who make less money are the billionaires who pay them. The same billionaires who already make plenty of money simply by virtue of already having lots of money.

Can it be frustrating to see people earn more money in a single year than most of us will earn in a lifetime? Absolutely. And I don’t blame you if you’d like to increase your own pay or the pay of people in occupations that are known for their low wages. But we don’t get any closer to that goal by attacking professional athletes for their salaries. We only cause more harm.