The light of autumn falls on our fields where dreams grow not of harvest but of beating Harvard. Regardless of the victor of The Game (and that sentiment won’t be expressed again), football has won, its victory sweeping from the painted water tower enthusiasm of rural America to the highest pinnacles of our ivory towers.
Of course, football’s conquest of our passions (or at least of our spirits on a particular Saturday in November) represents a sort of homecoming. The modern game that we now watch on Saturday (and Sunday and Monday and Friday …) was refined by Yale coach Walter Camp in 1880. But if the game retains the trappings of old tradition, the vast superstructure that has grown both to feed and prey on professional sports is new and each day trying to get newer and bigger and brighter.
The uncontrolled explosion of the sports-industrial complex, where Dodegeball’s ESPN the Ocho lingers not as a satire but as a business strategy, hides the extent to which professional sports themselves have instituted a plethora of rules to regulate their own economics. From football’s hard-line salary cap to the NBA’s pay scale for rookies and max contracts, professional sports in America have tried to limit the variances between both team spending and player salaries.
The impetus for such redistribution is a steroid-fueled home run away from any sentiments of distributional justice; though we may pity the Detroit Lions, we do so for their performance and not their poverty. Instead, the leveling of teams’ economic advantages springs from the pursuit of parity, not just because equality produces more interesting and competitive games, though it does, but also because controlling for external economic advantage isolates and rewards the talent of the team, from scouting to coaching to playing, and not the depth of its coffers.
Still some teams, particularly in baseball, particularly in major markets, chafe against such restrictions. If you want to hear American populism, listen to a “Yankees suck” chant; if you want to hear faux populism, listen to some Red Sox fans lead it. Yet its manipulators can’t ring out the deep truth that motivates such hostility: that George Steinbrenner’s profligate spending undermines baseball by moving the challenge from the events of the baseball diamond to the accumulation of diamonds.
But even stringent standards can quickly erode as initial success snowballs into institutional advantages. The distinct seasons of sports reins in this problem. Teams compete toward a championship, but afterward the worst teams receive preference when selecting new players and better teams suffer from their own success as their players’ value prompts better offers from other clubs. Almost as important as the reality of minimizing past advantages, yearly turnover preserves the hope of the lost and challenges anew the efforts of the victors.
In contrast to sports’ constant distillation of skill and performance, the economic system that prevails outside of sports strives not to diligently uncover talent but rather to protect established property and allow past riches to gain present advantage. Perhaps the more meritocratic competition of sports accounts for the incredible managerial scrutiny and turnover of coaches. Though such decisions may often be premature, they are made in part because of the clarity sports offers in determining victory and failure: wins and losses, touchdowns and interceptions, thanking the gods after a championship and begging them for one next year. But sports have moved beyond even that: From Bill James’ scribbling to Moneyball’s popular enlightenment, an embarrassing number of valuable statistics have emerged to track and evaluate players’ performance.
From the ancient Greeks to the overwrought sports journalism of today, the trope of combat and war has been used to inspire and describe sports. And maybe they are right, but for the wrong reason: Sports are a battle not because they are physical, but because they are as close to a fair fight as we have left, where the ever-present advantages and disadvantages that color our condition evaporate in a contest left to particular skill.
Perhaps the tree of the free markets must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of our large companies. It is not its natural manure, but it is the one it needs. Otherwise, and I write this with delight and despair, the Giants will continue to beat the Cowboys.
Ramon Gonzalez is a sophomore in Branford College.