Sports fans love sports for the games themselves. We love the excitement, the athleticism, the pageantry and drama, and the individual teams and athletes. We hate it, though, when the business side of the sports world interferes with the game. It usually seems to turn into a war waged in boardrooms and in press conferences. And it brings out the ugly, greedy underbelly of the sports we love.
Last year both the NFL and the NBA had lockouts. The players were literally locked out of team facilities by the owners. They couldn’t even work out or practice there. And they went unpaid. The NHL players are currently locked out, too, and if you’ve been watching any NFL games this season, you might have noticed the precipitous drop off in the quality of the officiating. Why? Because until this past Wednesday NFL referees were locked out by the league and games were officiated by replacement referees. All of these lockouts were about money—that’s greed, right?
It’s important to understand that these disputes, while they center on finances—annual salaries, team and league revenue—are labor disputes. They are about improving working conditions, equitable distribution of assets, proper reward for performance, and establishing a better future for employees. Every employee wants these guarantees, so this isn’t much different than if Pipefitters Local 454 went on strike. The difference is that it’s much easier to cry “greed!” when the median salary in the NFL is 15 times what a pipefitter earns. But is this a fair viewpoint?
It is unquestionable that greed plays a part in these disputes, but it’s not a worse sort of greed than you might find in the home of a banker or a teacher or a construction worker. Professional athletes, officials, and team owners aren’t inherently greedier than you or I—they just have a greater opportunity for it. It is so easy for me to ride the grimy Metra train to my modest office in Chicago to do real work and think how unconscionable it is for these spoiled brats to be sniping at each other over amounts of money I couldn’t even count. The assumption being that if I was in their position I would be different, better. But when people like me think this way, we’re wrong.
To gain that kind of wealth is to uncover a mineshaft of greed in the heart that is unfathomably deep. Even as they discuss reasonable issues in these labor disputes, the driving force on all sides is money. It is the great master they serve, and rather than deserving our scorn they ought to serve as bright red warning signs telling us “Watch Your Step” because that is a deep, deep hole. We see their greed because it has increased with opportunity, not because we are inherently better people. A wise man once said something about camels, needles, wealth, and heaven. We would do well to remember that bit of wisdom when our hearts are inclined to judge.