Ben Liebenberg / AP

NFL draft, organization reflect a model of socialism — to a point

Salary cap, collective-bargaining agreements, revenue sharing among its 32 franchises highlight league's collectivism

When the Houston Texans make the first pick in tonight’s NFL draft, they will begin an annual ritual highlighting an organizational structure that would make Karl Marx smile.

“… To each according to his need,” Marx wrote in “The Communist Manifesto,” and the draft — which gives the top pick to the worst-performing team from the previous season, and the next-worst order continues until the champion picks last — is one of many pillars of what the NFL calls “parity,” but what many agree are functioning models of collectivism at work.

“We’re 26 Republicans who vote like socialists,” Art Modell, the late owner of the Baltimore Ravens, once said, noting the number of NFL team owners at the time in reference to the league’s revenue-sharing model, in which the franchises (now 32) equally split the money from multibillion-dollar TV contracts for game broadcasts.

In addition to the draft and revenue sharing, the league’s salary cap ensures that teams can’t outspend each other in their effort to collect the best group of players possible, and those players (and officials) are unionized and operate under collective-bargaining agreements. Even each team’s strength of schedule — the caliber of the teams it’s going to have to play each season — is based on its success from the previous season, with the most successful teams facing tougher competition the following year.

“If a society of parity is better for the NFL, wouldn’t it also be better for the rest of us?” said Jodi Dean, a political science professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, and author of “The Communist Horizon.” “Wouldn’t it kind of make for a more fun, a more just, better world?”

As the NFL strives for a league that is competitive and entertaining for as many fans as possible, it has realized and instituted into its bylaws the value of a level playing field, Dean said.

“Fairness is a matter of the rules of the game,” she said. “It’s not just something that’s naturally occurring. It is analogous to political regulation or state control of the economy.”

Competition kept out

Marx’s belief that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” plays itself out in the NFL, Dean said, as the league has realized that “the flourishing of the whole league requires the flourishing of each team.”

Sports writer Michael Silver mused during the last NFL labor dispute in 2011, which resulted in a player lockout, that the league is “one big Eastern-bloc party” in which “the league’s owners protect their economic fates by establishing perfect barriers to entry, courtesy of a partial antitrust exemption” that keeps other competition out. The league won’t expand beyond 32 teams unless the owners decide it should. Many also take issue with the league’s nonprofit, tax-exempt status and with public funding of new stadiums.

Interestingly, while the NFL’s brand of collectivism functions within the United States’ capitalist system, European soccer leagues — which operate among countries that often employ varying degrees of socialist principles when it comes to health care, higher education, transportation and social safety nets — have employed an almost ruthlessly capitalist model in which teams have spent limitless cash to assemble dominant teams. The English Premier League’s Manchester City, which is on the verge of claiming the league title, spent 202 million euros (about $281.3 million) on its roster in 2011–12, according to Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance (PDF). Swansea City, by contrast, spent 35 million euros (about $48.7 million). The six top-spending EPL teams that season finished in the top eight. Recently implemented rules, called Financial Fair Play, are aiming to temper the overspending among soccer teams.

Capitalism for fans

But the NFL’s brand of collectivism extends only to what happens inside the lines on the field, said Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation and an Al Jazeera America contributor.

“When it comes to the owners figuring out how to organize their own sport, they’re not trying to stab each other in the back,” Zirin said, noting that Major League Baseball and the NBA are also starting to do more revenue sharing and capping of team salaries through luxury taxes. “They’re starting to realize that if you have a situation like you had with the Yankees in the late ’90s, that you end up not having a national product. They’ve ensured that their product remains solvent to a large degree in that most, if not all, teams can compete.”

And that is where the socialism parallel ends.

“In many ways pro sports are like socialism for owners and capitalism for fans, in that the owners reap all the benefits of a collective approach to their enterprise,” Zirin said, citing the massive costs of being a fan. “But there are no price controls on tickets, beer — no planned economy to make sure you don’t get raked over the coals if you try to park your car at a game.

“Anytime you spend $9 for a Pepsi,” Zirin added, “that ain’t socialism.”

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