The NFL is not socialist.

Bill Maher published an article on Friday entitled “Americans Must Realize What Makes NFL Football So Great: Socialism.” From the opening paragraph:

New Rule: With the Super Bowl only a week away, Americans must realize what makes NFL football so great: socialism. That’s right, for all the F-15 flyovers and flag waving, football is our most successful sport because the NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poor teams… just like President Obama wants to do with his secret army of ACORN volunteers. Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of 100,000. Yet this sleepy little town on the banks of the [Fox] River has just as much of a chance of making it to the Super Bowl as the New York Jets – who next year need to just shut the hell up and play.

Read the whole thing. I’ll wait here.

Back? Good. Now, I know better than to look for logic in the ramblings of pop political commentators, but there’s a flaw in Maher’s argument. More precisely, there’s a flaw in at least one of his premises. He has confused “socialism” with “voluntarily sharing.”

The NFL is not socialist—at least, not for the reasons Maher brings up. Here’s why:

The government does not own the NFL.

The government does not own any of the teams in the NFL (at least not that I know of; I guess it’s possible that a city might be a minority owner of a team).

The NFL is not exempt from anti-trust regulation—in fact, the only bigtime sports league exempt from anti-trust regulation is Mr. Maher’s target, Major League Baseball.

The government does not force anyone to buy or sell ownership in any NFL team.

The government does not force anyone to work for any NFL team.

The government does not force anyone to play for any NFL team.

The government does not force the owners of any NFL team to agree to revenue-sharing contracts.

The government does not force the owners of any NFL team to agree to any scheduling policy that gives weaker schedules to weaker teams.

The government does not force the owners of any NFL team to agree to any policy that gives higher draft picks to weaker teams.

The government does not force anyone to attend any NFL game, or watch any NFL game, or purchase any NFL merchandise.

In short, the government doesn’t force anyone involved in the NFL to do anything that they haven’t voluntarily agreed to do…

…with one glaring exception that Mr. Maher missed. Local (and possibly state) governments do subsidize NFL stadiums all over the country. That, as far as I know, is the only respect in which the NFL is socialized. But guess what? Major League Baseball also has subsidized stadiums. So do the NBA and the NHL. Thus Maher still fails to explain why the NFL is better than MLB.

In short, Bill Maher has completely ignored one of the key elements of socialism: the force of government–that is, the threat of going to jail (or worse) if you don’t pay for what the government makes you pay for, or use what the government makes you use.

I agree with Maher that the NFL is better than Major League Baseball, but there are many non-political problems with his argument. Three of them are focused in a single paragraph:

That’s why the NFL runs itself in a way that would fit nicely on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard – they literally share the wealth, through salary caps…

Although baseball has no salary cap, it does have a luxury tax that forces higher-spending teams to give cash to lower-spending teams.

…and revenue sharing – TV is their biggest source of revenue, and they put all of it in a big commie pot and split it 32 ways. Because they don’t want anyone to fall too far behind.

Actually, Major League Baseball also has revenue-sharing, though it’s slightly different from the NFL’s version.

That’s why the team that wins the Super Bowl picks last in the next draft.

Both the NFL and MLB determine next year’s draft order based on this year’s standings. In fact, all the major sports league do. There’s no difference there, so there’s no argument there.

The Yankees are the highest-spending team in baseball, and they often have really good teams for long stretches (four out of five titles from 1996 to 2000). But over the last ten years, during which the gap between them and the second-highest-spending team has grown to roughly $2.5 million per player, they’ve won only one title. In fact, in the last ten years, there’ve been nine different World Series Champions, with no back-to-back titles.

Over the same stretch (that is, since baseball’s last back-to-back championships), we’ve seen only eight NHL champions, seven NFL champions, and five NBA champions. In other words, baseball has been the most competitively balanced sport over the last ten years, based on championships. By contrast, the least competitively balanced sport over the last ten years (the NBA with only five champions) has a luxury tax and a salary cap.

You might ask, “Well, what about the Pirates? The Yankees might not always win, but the Pirates never will.” In response, I’d point out that the NFL has had its share of hopeless teams, and that the Florida Marlins prove that teams can go from being a low-spending team to World Series Champion (and back and forth and back again) in a relatively short time.

It would be nice of Mr. Maher to refine his understanding of socialism, and then do another “New Rules” segment about actual socialism in sports; i.e., subsidization of NFL and MLB stadiums.

5 comments

  1. I think you’re taking Mahers’ idea a little too literally. I don’t think that he meant socialism as in the government system of operation, socialism, but rather the general idea as applied to the NFL instead of to a state. That being said, I think he also misidentified socialism, and meant instead social-democracy as applied to the NFL.

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  2. I don’t think I took him too literally at all. He made an analogy. Analogies aren’t supposed to be literal. I get that. But his analogy was badly flawed. I pointed out why.

    As an aside, do you think there’s a “general idea of socialism” (or social democracy, if you’d like) that somehow doesn’t involve the state? What is it? And is there an analogue for non-socialism? What is that?

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  3. His analogy had its issues, but I think you’re being a little unfair. I think in it Maher viewed the NFL as an analogue for the government, ergo socialism; And not actually viewing the NFL as an individual under the state. With that in mind I think the majority of the “flaws” with the analogy evaporate. The NFL acts voluntarily under the government, but the teams under the NFL are not necessarily voluntarily sharing the wealth, and so on.

    In regards to the aside – Of course there are, but only in the same way that you find so flawed. Literally, nearly everything is under the government. I’ll use the classroom as an example. Education is a part of the district which is a part of the state etc., but teachers can apply different ideologies and individual practices to their teaching methods and how the class is run. You could say a teacher is totalitarian, democratic, socialist, or communist in their methods without having to be too literal. Again, the general idea.

    As to an analogue for non-socialism – Your favorite answer : I don’t know.

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  4. Let’s assume that I was unfair to Maher. Fine. Please allow me to address his analogy as precisely as possible, and fine-tune my first list of flaws (which I think remains mostly liquid).

    The NFL does not own any NFL team (although I think it might be legally possible for the league to temporarily take over ownership of a club; this can happen in the NBA).

    The NFL does not own any of the contracts of any NFL players.

    (The one about anti-trust regulation partly evaporates, because it makes no sense to say that the league has anti-trust regulation.)

    The NFL does not force anyone to buy or sell ownership in any NFL team.

    The NFL does not force anyone to work for any NFL team.

    The NFL does not force anyone to work for any NFL team.

    The NFL does not force the owners of any NFL team to agree to revenue-sharing contracts (actually, you could quibble with me on this one, see my note below).

    The NFL does not force the owners of any NFL team to agree to any scheduling policy that gives weaker schedules to weaker teams.

    The NFL does not force the owners of any NFL team to agree to any policy that gives higher draft picks to weaker teams.

    The NFL does not force anyone to attend any NFL game, or watch any NFL game, or purchase any NFL merchandise.

    In short, the NFL doesn’t force anyone involved in the NFL to do anything that they haven’t voluntarily agreed to do…

    I don’t know, I think my list holds up pretty well.

    You might say, “The league votes on policies, and the teams that lose the vote are forced to go along with the policy, just like in a social democracy.” True, but I would point out that the NFL’s policy votes are routinely far closer to unanimity, and therefore closer to voluntary consent, than are votes for policies or representatives. For instance, the most recent revenue-sharing vote (that I know of) was 30-2. That’s 93.75% of the voters in favor of the policy. How many votes on major government policies end up passing with 93.75% of the vote? Or 80%? Or 70%?

    NFL teams interact with the league and each other far more voluntarily than citizens or businesses (including the NFL) interact with their governments. I think the difference in degree is large enough to become a difference in kind, and that’s why Maher’s analogy is horrible.

    Re the aside: I wasn’t asking for another analogy for socialism. I was asking for the general idea of socialism, minus any mention of the state. And when I asked for an analogue for non-socialism, I meant “the general idea of non-socialism,” not an analogy for non-socialism.

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  5. My only point for the sake of argument is that in regard to the “The NFL does not force”, unless I’m mistaken, which is very possible, in a social democracy you’re not forced to do it either. The teams aren’t forced to abide by the rules set by the NFL, but there will be consequences if they do not. And as to major governmental policies passing with a large majority of the vote, that’s just not fair to compare. The NFL is more like-minded than a state with a million different opinions. (Which of course supports your argument that is analogy was horrific.)

    Other than that, I agree with you. If not only because I have almost no knowledge on the NFL and that I’m only a month into comparative politics, and that you make sense.

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