Rise and shine
DURING THE HEIGHT of the civil rights movement and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a common refrain was that the human spirit could not be suffocated by American oppression or Soviet communism. Human beings were plants who would always lean toward the warm sunlight of freedom. Even within the most crushing of regimes, democracy could not be stifled.
In sports, the same could be said for talent. For the past quarter-century, the industry of the games has been defined by the false narrative of parity -- by the idea that financial restrictions on players create the democracy of fair play. Sports leagues' lust for salary caps and their restrictions on player movements are for the good of the paying customer, the argument goes. But it's an argument that has little basis in reality. These structures exist for the sole purpose of increasing profits for owners. Parity cannot be forced any more than the right coaching can turn DeAndre Jordan into Michael Jordan.
In tennis, despite the slowing of the grass courts to create parity and the homogenizing of the major surfaces, three players -- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic -- had won 31 of the past 33 grand slams entering Wimbledon this year. In golf, despite the lengthening of the courses, Tiger Woods is still the most dominant figure. In the NBA, despite two lockouts, a salary cap and restrictions on free agency, three teams -- the Lakers, Spurs and Heat -- have won 12 of the past 15 titles. In the NFL, despite a lockout, a salary cap, revenue sharing, owner-friendly contracts and virtually nonexistent unrestricted free agency, four teams -- the Patriots, Giants, Steelers and Ravens -- have won nine of the past 13 Super Bowls and account for 13 of the past 26 Super Bowl participants. And in the NHL, despite yet another lockout that suppressed more player movement, earning power and contract stability, the four semifinalists just happened to be Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh, the winners of the previous four Stanley Cups.
Ironically, baseball, the sport with the fewest restrictions on player movement and salary potential, has the most parity. Yes, the Giants have won two of the past three World Series, but over the past 12 years, nine different teams have won the championship.
Yet the myth of parity through player restriction continues not only to persist but to thrive. Many in the media parrot the nonsense that the NFL would collapse if, say, Tom Brady were ever allowed to become an unrestricted free agent; in so doing, they condone the agenda of owners who don't want to compete nearly as much as they want cost certainty. The fans, often embittered that these young, athletically talented kids earn millions during deep economic turmoil, are offended by the unfairness of raw capitalism in sports -- but hardly fight against it on Wall Street or in workplaces where it directly affects them. The owners themselves, lazy in their thinking and comforted by not being held accountable, profit off this narrative -- when the truth is that the front offices that outwork their peers and place winning first usually, at some point, win.
In many cases, in fact, salary caps prevent teams from winning. The Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins or any team in a large media market with the resources and history to attract players would be better off without a cap. At least their fans would. Meantime, baseball actually already has the winning formula but is trying to play its way out of first place by adding to a ruse of parity in the form of extra rounds of playoffs and a more punitive luxury tax. Both come at the expense of its best asset -- the marquee teams that made the league famous.
The winners in this senseless but financially lucrative narrative are not the fans or the teams that hoist the trophies, but the owners and management of the losing teams. These are the ones who are in the act, get to hand out business cards and collect revenue-sharing checks without having to win. They profit from the assumption of their competence and good will, that having a good job is the same as doing one. The money rolls in as the losses pile up, and they never have to look in the mirror.