Is the NFL 'Socialistic'?

With the threat of an NFL player walkout in the news, the Boston Globe editorial board grabbed the opportunity to bring up the fatuous argument that football is a socialist enterprise. 

In the space of the brief editorial titled "NFL: Socialism makes everyone rich," the Globe argues that the NFL is "fantastically successful experiment in corporate socialism" and that "[t]he league's business practices contradict the tenets of a free market." The editorial praises the NFL's "collectivist arrangement" and finishes with a twofer, praising the father of Communism and getting in a jab at Sarah Palin in one sentence: "Karl Marx could explain this; it's definitely not in the playbook of either Ron Paul or Sarah Palin."

The Globe is not guilty of original analysis; the Socialist NFL argument seems to surface in the fever swamps every six months or so. Last October, the leftist commentariat was delighted to expose the supposed hypocrisy of Rush Limbaugh's attempt to buy into a socialist enterprise like the St. Louis Rams.

A month earlier, Frank Deford reported on NPR: "There's probably no more successful socialistic enterprise in the whole world than the National Football League."

Back in 2007, the Globe's Derrick Jackson wrote in "Football Socialism" that the NFL is "the most successful form of socialism in the United States."

Daily Kos is explicit in the conclusion we're supposed to draw from the Jackson column: "Football is a socialist sport -- and the U.S. should follow its lead."

It is true that NFL owners have agreed to cooperate in a way that benefits the entire league. Their revenue-sharing agreement distributes television income equally, in effect redistributing wealth from the more popular franchises to the less successful. The football draft has a goal of leveling the playing field to reduce inequalities between teams. Salary caps and salary floors are forms of wage controls. Isn't this proof that the NFL is striving for the socialist goal of eliminating economic inequality?

This line of argument overlooks several obvious points. To state the self-evident, the sport of football is fiercely competitive. NFL players want their teams to win. People who get in the way get hurt. Watch thirty seconds of football and ask yourself which stereotype it resembles: dog-eat-dog capitalism or collectivist utopia?

An organization like the NFL should be assessed by its activity in the macro-economy, not by the internal arrangements league members have fashioned. Only the willfully blind could deny that the NFL is a capitalist enterprise competing in a market economy with other sports and entertainment for spectators and television viewers. The goal behind the league's internal cooperation is to make games more competitive and exciting, to attract more fans, and above all, to make more money. Competing for advertisers selling Doritos and Dodge Ram trucks in a market with five hundred television channels is a strange example of the "most successful form of socialism in the United States." Football in a socialist country would compete with the speeches of the Dear Leader on one of four state-owned channels.

Even if one accepts the dubious premise that the NFL succeeds because it has adopted socialism, there is no reason to conclude that these same socialist principles ought to be applied to society as a whole. These articles on the NFL promote a falsehood: that if a little bit of socialism works for football, a lot of socialism will be even better for the country.

Many economic entities that make up a free-market economy have internal constraints that could be labeled "socialist." Employees in a business corporation are expected to cooperate for the greater good of the collective. Businesses offer pensions and medical care like socialist governments, and many have unionized workforces. Families also impose values on their members of sharing wealth and obligation to the group. What is a virtue in a microcosm, however, becomes onerous when applied to an entire society. Socialism is a gateway to totalitarian government -- the totality of society is organized from above to create the best results (in theory) for everyone. Expanding socialist principles requires an expansion of the power of government to administer them. As Hayek observed sixty-six years ago, socialism must be performed by a human agency that has been given power to redistribute wealth. Power always corrupts; liberty is therefore always diminished, and socialism is always, in Hayek's words, "the road to serfdom."

We are willing to trade liberty for the benefits of an employment contract. Outside of work, you don't answer to your employer, and if you don't like your boss, you can quit. Expanding NFL socialism to American society, however, turns the government into a boss who in the interest of the collective can dictate the intimate details of our behavior. How do you quit your country, aside from emigrating to seek freedom? The vast majority of immigrants to America throughout history did exactly that, but where would Americans go to find a more free society?

Jean-François Revel says in his brilliant exposé of socialism, Last Exit to Utopia, The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, that "socialism is intrinsically destructive of humanity." He stresses that whenever it has been tried, it leads to utter failure, poverty, mass murder, and the gulag. Socialism makes everyone rich? Show me the money.

Peter Wilson is a writer who blogs at walkingdogcapitalist.
With the threat of an NFL player walkout in the news, the Boston Globe editorial board grabbed the opportunity to bring up the fatuous argument that football is a socialist enterprise. 

In the space of the brief editorial titled "NFL: Socialism makes everyone rich," the Globe argues that the NFL is "fantastically successful experiment in corporate socialism" and that "[t]he league's business practices contradict the tenets of a free market." The editorial praises the NFL's "collectivist arrangement" and finishes with a twofer, praising the father of Communism and getting in a jab at Sarah Palin in one sentence: "Karl Marx could explain this; it's definitely not in the playbook of either Ron Paul or Sarah Palin."

The Globe is not guilty of original analysis; the Socialist NFL argument seems to surface in the fever swamps every six months or so. Last October, the leftist commentariat was delighted to expose the supposed hypocrisy of Rush Limbaugh's attempt to buy into a socialist enterprise like the St. Louis Rams.

A month earlier, Frank Deford reported on NPR: "There's probably no more successful socialistic enterprise in the whole world than the National Football League."

Back in 2007, the Globe's Derrick Jackson wrote in "Football Socialism" that the NFL is "the most successful form of socialism in the United States."

Daily Kos is explicit in the conclusion we're supposed to draw from the Jackson column: "Football is a socialist sport -- and the U.S. should follow its lead."

It is true that NFL owners have agreed to cooperate in a way that benefits the entire league. Their revenue-sharing agreement distributes television income equally, in effect redistributing wealth from the more popular franchises to the less successful. The football draft has a goal of leveling the playing field to reduce inequalities between teams. Salary caps and salary floors are forms of wage controls. Isn't this proof that the NFL is striving for the socialist goal of eliminating economic inequality?

This line of argument overlooks several obvious points. To state the self-evident, the sport of football is fiercely competitive. NFL players want their teams to win. People who get in the way get hurt. Watch thirty seconds of football and ask yourself which stereotype it resembles: dog-eat-dog capitalism or collectivist utopia?

An organization like the NFL should be assessed by its activity in the macro-economy, not by the internal arrangements league members have fashioned. Only the willfully blind could deny that the NFL is a capitalist enterprise competing in a market economy with other sports and entertainment for spectators and television viewers. The goal behind the league's internal cooperation is to make games more competitive and exciting, to attract more fans, and above all, to make more money. Competing for advertisers selling Doritos and Dodge Ram trucks in a market with five hundred television channels is a strange example of the "most successful form of socialism in the United States." Football in a socialist country would compete with the speeches of the Dear Leader on one of four state-owned channels.

Even if one accepts the dubious premise that the NFL succeeds because it has adopted socialism, there is no reason to conclude that these same socialist principles ought to be applied to society as a whole. These articles on the NFL promote a falsehood: that if a little bit of socialism works for football, a lot of socialism will be even better for the country.

Many economic entities that make up a free-market economy have internal constraints that could be labeled "socialist." Employees in a business corporation are expected to cooperate for the greater good of the collective. Businesses offer pensions and medical care like socialist governments, and many have unionized workforces. Families also impose values on their members of sharing wealth and obligation to the group. What is a virtue in a microcosm, however, becomes onerous when applied to an entire society. Socialism is a gateway to totalitarian government -- the totality of society is organized from above to create the best results (in theory) for everyone. Expanding socialist principles requires an expansion of the power of government to administer them. As Hayek observed sixty-six years ago, socialism must be performed by a human agency that has been given power to redistribute wealth. Power always corrupts; liberty is therefore always diminished, and socialism is always, in Hayek's words, "the road to serfdom."

We are willing to trade liberty for the benefits of an employment contract. Outside of work, you don't answer to your employer, and if you don't like your boss, you can quit. Expanding NFL socialism to American society, however, turns the government into a boss who in the interest of the collective can dictate the intimate details of our behavior. How do you quit your country, aside from emigrating to seek freedom? The vast majority of immigrants to America throughout history did exactly that, but where would Americans go to find a more free society?

Jean-François Revel says in his brilliant exposé of socialism, Last Exit to Utopia, The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era, that "socialism is intrinsically destructive of humanity." He stresses that whenever it has been tried, it leads to utter failure, poverty, mass murder, and the gulag. Socialism makes everyone rich? Show me the money.

Peter Wilson is a writer who blogs at walkingdogcapitalist.

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