Athletic Ethics?

Athletic Ethics? June 15, 2007

moneyball-600×600.jpgMy summer reading program has started off successfully. I’ve caught up on Dave Eggers’ newest “novel,” What is the What, a graphic novel, The Pride of Baghdad, and most recently, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. All three of these raise significant ethical questions for consideration, and Eggers’ novel poses some questions for theology that require much more thought before I write a post on them. Lewis’ book, however, fit into a train of thought I’ve had recently and worked on during the spring semester, the relationship between sports and spirituality/theology/ethics.

I had been wanting to read Moneyball for quite some time, but never got around to it. Of course, being in the Bay Area and a new fan of the Oakland Athletics made it all the more enjoyable. In this wildly praised book, Lewis examines Billy Beane’s (the A’s general manager) revolutionary way of competing in Major League Baseball against opponents with double or triple his payroll. Largely influenced by Bill James’ study of baseball statistics and new ways of judging offensive and defensive performance, Beane has acquired great players at discounted prices and dealt sub-par performers to other teams for great financial gain. The result: a “poor” franchise that consistently outperforms its more lucrative opponents.

The statistical evidence that James discovered, Beane tapped into, and Lewis relays here speaks for itself and, in the end, seems like a no-brainer. Yet the most shocking part of Lewis’ research is that so many MLB teams and figureheads reject this information outright, preferring to judge a player’s worth on seemingly archane traits like “potential,” looks, homerruns, etc. However, some teams are tapping into this new way of managing baseball.

I do not want to delve into the details of this new management style (Lewis, of course, does this quite sufficiently); however, I would like to offer a couple comments on what I believe is an ethical undertone to his argument. Before I continue, I must make a disclaimer: I am an avid sports fan (read addict). I will watch almost any sport, live or on television. I purchase magazines…I buy tickets…ESPN is my default cable channel. As such, I am complicit in some of the complaints I will make here and do recognize my role in perpetuating what is at times an unjust, unethical world. Hopefully, Lewis’ books and others like them will inspire some sort of change although I am not optimistic.

The first question or issue that arises in Moneyball concerns professional athletes’ salaries. Multi-million dollar salaries are common, and the professional sports equivalent of minimum wage is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Combine endorsement deals with these slaries and the billion dollar athlete might not be far off. So the question that most financially secure individuals face comes into sharper focus here: how much is too much? Unfortunately, it seems as if we have opened Pandora’s Box, reaching a financial point of no return. Why can’t professional athletes be satisfied with several hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to many millions? Where are corporate and individual priorities when this kind of cash is thrown around?

Yet it would be all too easy to pin this on individual or corporate greed. One could argue that such salaries are both needed and deserved. Of course, numerous professional athletes of all races come from financially and socially poor backgrounds and use this money to not only secure a comfortable present and future for themselves, but for their family members as well. Moreover, we could also imagine that a player’s talent or collections of it, creates a financial market that provides jobs and resources for countless individuals. Professional sports teams occasionally fold or move to new cities because of obvious financial factors. Lack of talented athletes and the means to pay them cannot be ignored. We also cannot ignore the fact that professional athletes are often (although perhaps not as often as some would like) extremely generous with their resources, supporting charities and individuals in need in this country and around the world.

Finally, we have to recognize that this is a profession–a career–for these athletes. This is what they have spent their entire lives training–being educated–to do. In football, especially, the rigors of the job force athletes into an early retirement. In fact, athletic retirment, in the majority of cases, begins around the mid-40’s. Precious few will find coaching jobs, fewer still will go into broadcasting. This isn’t necessarily a case of, “Well, they should have finished school or gotten a degree.” We have to ask ourselves what we would do if we suddenly could not do the job we loved or if our vocation was snatched away from us? Thus, these salaries from a relatively short career, quite frankly, have to last a player’s lifetime. While the players that Beane drafts make considerably less than other colleagues, we unfortunately do not see their financial (in)security as a result of these paycuts. Many players eventual opt for bigger salaries from other teams, making Oakland seem like a place where baseball stars are born and where they fade out.

Though I doubt Lewis intended it or that Beane would agree with it, I do see an ethical/spiritual dimension to the way Beane goes after particular players. Obviously Beane is not totally blind and often finds himself battling for a player that other teams want, but for the most part, it seems as if he is left to rummage through what much of MLB would consider a recycling bin…or trash heap. Signing players that other teams have cast aside, Beane has breathed new life into their careers, giving them a sense of worth that sparks their performance, often influencing another club to reconsider the player’s worth, often to his and Beane’s financial benefit.

There’s something spiritually uplifting in all this…of valuing the seemingly unvaluable. It seems to parallel, somewhat, the ways God chooses to deal in this world…the way Jesus encourages us to watch out for the least of these. Whetheyr they did so on purpose or not, it appears that the New Orleans Saints followed in Beane’s footsteps by signing QB Drew Brees from free agency. All the traditional wisdom told the Saints to pass…he’s too old, coming off surger, and there are flashier QB’s to be had. Yet the Saints took a chance on Brees, and Brees took a chance on them to be sure. The result: Brees led them to the NFC Championship game with one of the best performances at QB of the season.

Of course, I don’t want to nominate Beane for sainthood here (from what Lewis writes, it would be difficult indeed). He is a ruthless businessman who has used a new market strategy/analysis to much success. He signs, trades, and fires players the way most people compile grocery lists (thus deveating from any “least of these” teachings). Indeed, that’s what the Oakland A’s seem to be in his eyes…a list of ingredients, which can change at any moment, to win. Thus, this raises questions of just who or what are we rooting for in professional sports (I am increasingly inclined to side with Jerry Seinfeld when he says, “You’re basically rooting for laundry”). I don’t say these things to discount the validity of the two main points I made previously. I say these things, along with my initial disclaimer, to show that this is a complex issue with significant gray areas…with a shifting strike zone. The world of professional sports is ripe for the picking of discussions about ethics and spirituality. Sportswriters often pick up on them before theologians or religious studies scholars. While I was behind the curve on reading Moneyball, I feel that I am ahead of it, perhaps blindly so, on its ethical and spiritual possibilities.

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