A Search for Ethical Consciousness in Sports: Capitalism

[Continuing my discussion of ethical challenges to being a fan of a major sport in Western society, I will look at the inherent capitalism that any fan of a sport is endorsing]

To begin this discussion, I looked at fighting in hockey, an ethical issue that is (arguably) peculiar to hockey – and, if we wanted to be even more specific – to the NHL and it’s feeder leagues, as the European game is less physical.  This time, I want to broaden the discussion and talk about something that affects all major sports, not just hockey, and that is the issue of the capitalistic values that are inherently being supported by investing oneself in the practice of being a ‘fan’ of a given team, league, or sport.  So please take all of my hockey-centric examples as applying equally to your sport of choice.

I have always found statistics fascinating, and hockey, like many sports, is full of them.  One of my favourite stats, which illustrates this point well, is just how much money players are being paid for stepping onto the ice for a shift – which lasts roughly 40-50 seconds.  Let’s take an example with round, easy numbers.  Say Henrik Sedin makes $5M/year, and he plays 20 minutes/game, and is healthy, and so he plays all 82 games of the regular season, and that those 20 minutes/game are split up into even, but unusually long, 1-minute shifts.  In this case, every time Henrik plays a shift, he is paid roughly $3,000.  Now this stat gets much more ridiculous when you consider contracts that are overpaying players in the first place, and then the players follow that up by being injury ridden (i.e. lets say Herik plays 20 games instead of 82, then he gets $12,500/shift) or when you consider how much a player is paid per goal scored (usually used to highlight how much a team is overpaying a player).

I hope that example helps give a more specific feel to the general worry that is not hard to imagine, that by being a fan of any sport you are directly paying for other people to live the lifestyles that come out of earning this much money for playing a game they love.  Now this is not to diminish the work they put in to get there.  Undoubtedly, my respect for what a person needs to do to get to the NHL has grown, not diminished, from reading more about that journey.  But how much sense does it make that the minimum salary in the NHL is $500,000?  Again, many NHL players do amazing things with the wealth that their skill earns them – the Sedin’s recently donated $1.5M to Children’s Hospital, and many teams are very active in their communities.  I just don’t think that any of this is enough, nor is it the players’ fault that nothing they could ever do would make up for the fact that they get treated like celebrities and paid like celebrities to play a game.

Of course, none of this even touches on the marketing bonanza that each team, and the league as a whole, engages in, where you can literally get any object with your team’s logo on it (and don’t get me started on the fact that players seem to think that starting their own clothes line is a good idea).  As far as material objects go, I have spent a lot of money on Canucks-related things, and I don’t think there’s anything quite like slipping on my jersey before a game.  But the root cause for this deeply capitalistic enterprise is, at bottom, the ‘need’ to pay players (and to a lesser extent, coaches and executives) exorbitant salaries so that the business runs at a profit.  If salaries were cut (and they were after the collective bargaining agreement in 2005) to reflect the world that we live in a little bit more, then the need to sell trinkets with a logo on them would diminish in kind.

Again, I would like to end with the question: what does one do with this information?  If one is committed, for whatever confluence of reasons, to remaining a fan of the sport they love, then I think the least they can do is curtail the money spent fattening the wallets of people who simply do not need that support.  While that seems easy enough to do when it comes to memorabilia – though watch me put my foot into my mouth if/when the Canucks ever win a certain silver mug – the problem with that approach is that the biggest source of revenue that a sports team gets (I would have to presume) is from seat sales, and there is nothing like being at a game.  In fact, the way sports are ‘consumed’ in the Western world now, it is very hard to disengage from the capitalist nature of a given sport without disengaging in equal measure from the sport itself (at the highest level of competition).  I think that in order to avoid the result of having no answer to this question, one needs to begin to talk about why being a sports fan is good, which is where I will end this discussion in the next installment.

If anyone has any other facets of sports (hockey specifically) that they find ethically troubling that I haven’t touched on, raise them in the comments and I will add another post before moving on to the positive case for being a sports fan.



7 thoughts on “A Search for Ethical Consciousness in Sports: Capitalism

  1. Hey Benj,

    This is a fascinating conversation. As you know I was quite the hard-core sports fan for quite a few years. One of the big things for me was the huge amount of time spent following sports (watching, reading, etc.). As I started getting more seriously interested in politics and activism, I just didn’t have the time to do both. As I got further away from the sports world, I found it more difficult to really care about what happened in sports when there were so many larger and actual real-life problems. I think many people use sports as an escape, which is fine, but not in place of actually caring about real-life societal problems.

  2. Thanks, I identify with what you’re saying. If I had to spoil all the fun and ‘give away the ending’ I would give an answer similar to yours, and say that as I begin to shape my life as representative of what is most important to me in the world, hockey falling a few (or many) rungs down the proverbial ladder would not surprise me.

  3. I really don’t know, but I think there may be revenue streams associated with a team like the Canucks that are even larger than ticket sales.

    you’d know better than me, but the marketing dollars spent swirling around this sport, television rights, advertising, billboards, etc… have to be huge.

    but as business propositions go, it’s pretty clean – they’re not blowing things up, generally not hurting anyone except themselves, providing millions with entertainment they seem to be willing to pay for, and as a result, as industries go, they’re far from the top tier of objectionable industries.

  4. and on the second topic I’d say that I’d also come the conclusion years back, when I was high school or college age, that participating in sport, staying active, was my preference over being a sports fan, and getting all excited about what I saw on TV – was never much of a spectator.

    but everyone’s circumstances are different, and for lots of folk who have some physical disability for example, maybe feeling connected as a sports fan is the closest they can get to “participating”…

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