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Sports aren’t fair

Would they even be interesting if they were?

Allegiant Stadium Video Board Lit Up In Support Of Hospitalized Buffalo Bills Player Damar Hamlin Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The NFL announced last night their plan for the 2022/2023 playoff season after they were forced to cancel the Bengals-Bills game on Monday night. This was immediately met with outcry from all sides that it “wasn’t fair.” Bills fans complain that it’s not their favorite team’s fault that they couldn’t play that game and they might have won the number one seed! Chiefs fans complain similarly that it isn’t their fault the game wasn’t played and that they expect the Bills would have lost. Some people will point to the complaints from both sides and indicate that this means the NFL actually made as fair of a choice as they could have. And, while they’re wrong about whether you can tell that from both sides complaining - both sides would also have complained if the NFL had banished both teams from the playoffs, for example - it likely is as fair as they could get it.

Which doesn’t mean it’s fair.

Both sides are right. It’s unfair that the Bills won’t know if they could have won that game and had the number one seed outright. It’s equally unfair that the Chiefs won’t know if the Bills could have lost that game and then had the number one seed outright for themselves. It’s also unfair that a young, healthy man named Damar Hamlin almost died on a football field during a pretty routine-looking play.

I am reminded of the realm of competitive video games where things are also forever unfair. Over the last month, Marvel Snap players have complained about the unfairness of certain cards. For years before that, Super Smash Bros players complained about the fairness of certain characters over others. Destiny 2 devs are constantly tweaking stats and weapons in the search for a more fair PvP environment even though that is clearly not the main focus of that video game’s design. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, none of those games have ever been fair. And neither have sports.

In baseball, people often talk about the unfairness of spending. Steve Cohen’s Mets have put that into sharp relief this off-season. However, if we look beyond that, I think it might be reasonable to argue that it’s unfair to the rest of the NFL that the Chiefs were able to draft Patrick Mahomes and sign him to a very team-friendly deal that should allow them to start every season as Super Bowl contenders as a baseline for the next decade. Similarly, it’s not fair that the Broncos are paying so much for Russel Wilson when he’s played so poorly this season.

Perfect fairness would, of course not be very fun - or possible. It would require identical opponents with identical coaching and identical game plans to face each other. If everything were truly fair, such a match would almost by definition have to result in a draw. But that doesn’t mean there’s no value in seeking more fairness.

In the realm of video games, I already mentioned the attempts at balancing that developers constantly make. However, tournament sponsors also usually attempt to insert more fairness as well. They’ll ban certain characters which have been deemed too overpowered. They’ll also attempt to remove randomness where possible. For example, Super Smash Bros tournaments often eliminate the random item drops from the game in order to keep things fairer. And so, looking at video games, I’ve designed a new model by which we might be able to make sports leagues fairer.

The fairest sports league of them all

In order to keep spending fair, sports leagues often implement salary caps and floors. However, I think we can get fairer than that. In the Fair Sports League (trademark pending,) all players will be paid according to draft order (more on that in a moment.) Moreover, these salaries would be negotiated to be some percentage of the gross income of the teams and league. However, individual teams will not pay those salaries, the league will pay them and the teams will each be responsible for an identical share regardless of which players are on their rosters. What could be fairer than identical salary expectations?

Now you’re probably asking, “How would it be fair for the Royals to have to pay part of Aaron Judge’s massive salary when they don’t get to benefit from his play?” and that’s where the massive proposed fairness change comes in. Players would no longer be under contract for multiple seasons to the same team. Instead, every off-season would culminate in a complete re-draft of (and realignment of pay for) the entire player base.

For fairness’ sake, I was originally thinking that each team would have to draw lots every off-season to determine the draft order and while that might be fairer to the teams it would be less fair to the fanbases. So, instead, draft order could go back to what MLB had before - reverse order of record. Also, the draft would be a snake draft because those are inherently fairer than the standard draft order.

All in-season minor league players and free agents would be available to any team, but waiver wire priority would be in reverse order of record. Trades would be allowed but monitored somehow for fairness; there would be no teams in the cellar dumping off their best players to a better team in exchange for some future benefit. Not that a future benefit would really exist in this system.

Would this league be completely fair? Of course not. There’s still human error and variance at play. And, of course, the possibility of player injury. An additional rule could be added precluding a team from playing a player drafted in the same round as an injured player on the opposing team but even that wouldn’t completely account for the difference since it’s unlikely the two players would be performing at equal levels or be equally important to their teams. Imagine having to bench a starting pitcher whose turn was coming up in the rotation because the other team’s left fielder got hurt. Additionally, the different stadium sizes would still make for a lack of fairness unless we were willing to overhaul or rebuild them all to have identical dimensions.

There would be other drawbacks, as well. It’s hard to develop fan favorites when players only spend a single year with a given team. There could be guys who consistently get drafted to the same teams but I’d expect that to be a pretty rare occurrence barring some sort of collusion. It’s also unclear how a lack of player/team continuity might affect merchandise sales. Fans seem less likely to fork out money for a player’s jersey when he probably won’t be around next season, but they’re more likely to buy merch in general for a winning team.

Ultimately, however, under this system, every team would have a real chance of being competitive if not every season then at least half of the seasons. Every season would start out exciting for every team because the previous years’ results would have absolutely no impact on what was to come. But I’m curious, if you could only choose between that which I have presented and MLB as it currently exists, which would you prefer?


Which league would you prefer?

This poll is closed

  • 68%
    Existing MLB
    (83 votes)
  • 31%
    The Fairest League
    (38 votes)
121 votes total Vote Now