Not Just Another Labor Force (Ep. 365)
If you think talent and hard work give top athletes all the leverage to succeed, think again. As employees in the Sports-Industrial Complex, they’ve got a tight earnings window, a high injury rate, little choice in where they work — and a very early forced retirement. (Ep. 6 of “The Hidden Side of Sports” series.)
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
* * *
Kerri WALSH JENNINGS: If you make it to the finals, you feel like a rock star. You feel like you own the world.
Domonique FOXWORTH: I was in love with the game, in part because of how violent it was.
Kim NG:If you want something, you have to be aggressive.
Lauren MURPHY: It was over in 17 seconds. I got a T.K.O. victory. And I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I have to do this again.”
Toby MOSKOWITZ: The fact of the matter is: superstars do win championships.
* * *
The Super Bowl is by far the biggest sports event in the United States. It draws the most viewers, the most attention, and of course the most money. As we’ve been discussing in this “Hidden Side of Sports” series, the sports-industrial complex has grown tremendously over the past few decades; it generates roughly $70 billion a year. But once you strip away the massive TV revenues, the increasingly sophisticated arenas and stadiums, all the merchandise — what most people care about is watching the players play. How much do we care about the players themselves? That is a different question.
Most of us do profess to care about the livelihood and well-being of employees in various industries. Does this apply to athletes? Or is sports too unlike other industries to think of its employees as just another labor force? Let’s find out; let’s find out what it’s like to be on the labor side of the equation in a business that often seems — and never more than on Super Bowl Sunday — to be nothing but superstars and fat paychecks and game-day glory.
DeMaurice SMITH: Yes, the National Football League generates billions of dollars. But the reality of the facts of our business are rather stark.
That’s DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the the N.F.L. Players Association, the union that represents the athletes.
SMITH: Our players play for approximately three-and-a-half years.
On average, that is; some careers are obviously longer. And every career, at some point, is derailed by pain.
SMITH: The injury rate is 100 percent. Owners tend to own teams for decades, if not generations. What the players have tried to do throughout history is just to make sure that they get what they believe is their fair share.
According to a lot of the athletes we’ve been speaking with, in a variety of sports, a fair share is hard to come by. Many feel they don’t have much control over their destinies — financial and otherwise.
FOXWORTH: It’s an interesting kind of irony in that sports is a place that we consider as close to a meritocracy as we have, and you look at the field and we convince ourselves that once you step out there, it’s all fair, and it feels that way. That doesn’t extend to the business of sports.
This is true of the biggest sports, like football.
SMITH: The owners are people who are used to getting their way.
And the sports that draw smaller crowds.
WALSH JENNINGS: The athletes have no leverage. It’s almost like the abuser-abusee relationship, where the abusee gives excuses for being abused. That’s exactly what’s happening with regard to domestic volleyball here in the U.S.
This can happen early in an athlete’s career.
FOXWORTH: Most people understand that college sports is professional sports. They generate a substantial amount of revenue, and that revenue goes to lots of people who are not the labor.
It can happen to athletes at their peak.
Shawn JOHNSON: The way these contracts are structured is these athletes aren’t paid any money upfront. The only way they earn money is by winning medals.
And it extends into retirement — which, for athletes, is an inherently early retirement.
J.J. REDICK: I think about what I’m going to do after basketball on a daily basis. And there’s a level of fear of the other side.]
* * *
The seeds of a sports career are typically planted quite early.
FOXWORTH: I was eight when I decided I wanted to be a professional football player.
That’s Domonique Foxworth. He played in the N.F.L. from 2005 to 2011.
FOXWORTH: It’s weird, I was young enough then to be naive enough to think, obviously, “I’m going to play in the N.F.L.” I started getting invited to football camps. And that’s when it started to become a business. When I showed up and it was like, “Oh, they’re evaluating me.” This is where the dream either continues to go forward or dies.
WALSH JENNINGS: The very first moment I played volleyball, I fell in love with it.
That’s the three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings.
WALSH JENNINGS: And people talk about their “aha moments” and these pivotal times in their lives where things are different. I had that moment when I was 10, in the fifth grade, and I literally just fell in love with the dance of the game and the learning everything that had to do with volleyball. I loved it. I was a geek for it.
Mark TEIXEIRA: I was a sophomore in high school and pro scouts started showing up to my games.
And that’s Mark Teixeira.
TEIXEIRA: And that’s when I was talking to my coaches and talking to my dad and talking to some of these scouts, saying “Wow, I could actually play professional baseball. How cool is that?”
Teixeira wound up playing 14 seasons in the major leagues. He was a three-time All-Star, a World Series champion. But back in 1998, he was just a teenager with a lot of potential.
TEIXEIRA: I was the 12th-rated prospect in the draft that year, my senior year.
He could have played college baseball first or gone straight to the pros through Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. The draft is how teams in the big American sports pick their young players. Unlike other industries, where an employee can choose the city where they want to live and the company they want to work for, in a sports draft the employee can only work for the company that chooses them. Still, for a player like Teixeira, the future was bright.
TEIXEIRA: For all intents and purposes, I should have been a top-15 pick, right? The Red Sox that year had the ninth pick.
The Red Sox actually had the 12th overall pick, not the ninth; Teixeira’s recollection seems a bit off. Anyway:
TEIXEIRA: They called me up before the draft and said, “Hey, we want you to take this signing bonus, it was $1.5 million, we’re going to take you, this signing bonus, agree to this pre-draft deal, we’ll draft you and you’ll get started.” Well you’re not allowed to, at least in those days, you weren’t allowed to pre-negotiate a deal when you’re an amateur. And I said “Okay, you know what? I’ll roll the dice. If the Red Sox don’t draft me, some other team will draft me and I’ll be fine.” Well, draft day comes. It was going to be the coolest day of my life, the most exciting day of my life. Not only was I not the ninth pick. I dropped to the ninth round.
DUBNER: Wow. So that’s like 270 spots or something, right?
TEIXEIRA: And who drafts me?
DUBNER: Boston Red Sox?
TEIXEIRA: The Boston Red Sox.
Teixeira wound up going the college route, and played baseball at Georgia Tech.
TEIXEIRA: Best three years of my life.
DUBNER: Met your wife there, I understand?
TEIXEIRA: Met my wife there, had a blast, became a better baseball player.
When Teixeira entered the draft this time, he was picked fifth overall, by the Texas Rangers. So what had happened in that first draft? According to Teixeira, here’s what the Red Sox did:
TEIXEIRA: They called every single team in baseball and said, “Teixeira is not signing and he’s going to Georgia Tech. Don’t draft him.”
The Red Sox, we should say, have disputed Teixeira’s account, and claim they did nothing wrong. In any case, here’s what Teixeira took away from that incident.
TEIXEIRA: This was the moment that I realized that baseball is a business.
For Domonique Foxworth, the business side of sports became fully manifest during college, at the University of Maryland.
FOXWORTH: My freshman year in college, we won the A.C.C. championship. We went to the Orange Bowl and lost, and then immediately after, my head coach got a $10-million extension. That was when I was like, “Oh, we aren’t a team, we’re a business.” And that was when the light went on for me.
There is perhaps no more confounding labor market in sports than the one whose organizers insist on saying it is not a labor market. I’m talking about big-time American college sports, run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or N.C.A.A. College sports — especially basketball and football — have also grown massively over the past few decades; they generate about $13 billion a year — nearly as much as the N.F.L But the labor is essentially free. Aside from room and board and some academic scholarships, college athletes receive no compensation. So where is that $13 billion going?
FOXWORTH: It goes to supporting other sports, it goes to building bigger and better facilities, it goes to paying college presidents and coaches and funding the N.C.A.A. It goes a lot of different places, but it doesn’t go to the people who are the labor on the field.
Just how much is going to the coaches? The Duke economist Charles Clotfelter looked at compensation data for various personnel from 44 public universities that have big football programs. Over the past 30 years, he found that full professors got a salary increase of 43 percent, adjusted for inflation. Not bad. College presidents got an 89 percent increase over that time. Even better. How’d the football coaches do? Over those 30 years, football coaches’ compensation increased more than 1,100 percent, from an average of around $300,000 to more than $3.6 million a year. Back in 1985, football coaches were earning slightly less on average than the college presidents; now they earn about six times as much. Their athletes, meanwhile, are still playing for free. And if you want a career in the N.B.A. or N.F.L., you pretty much have to play at least some college ball, since both leagues have eligibility requirements that forbid athletes from going pro straight out of high school. Domonique Foxworth again:
FOXWORTH: If that was the end of the story, and every player then went on to have N.F.L. careers, it would be unfair, but whatever, you’re not going to lose any sleep for those guys. But the vast majority of the guys — and I have several teammates who, because it is not considered work, they’re not privy to workers’ compensation. They’re not privy to extended health care.
So one of my best friends in college, he had aspirations to play professional football. He had three knee surgeries while in college. A few years ago, his doctor told him that he was going to have to have both of his knees replaced by the time he was 50. And he didn’t play professional sports. And there’s nothing that any college football team or governing body is going to do for him in that case. And that to me is tragic, that a lot of people benefited from that.
DUBNER: So, the old-fashioned argument for why this was acceptable was that this is like what economists call a tournament model, right? Whenever you’ve got a lot of people competing for the top of the pyramid, whether it’s show business or sports or whatever, the bottom of the pyramid, there’s lots and lots and lots and lots of people there willing to do whatever it takes for practically no money. It’s this kind of weird unpaid apprenticeship. Some people accept that as okay. Others don’t.
But what strikes me that’s especially noteworthy about sports is the degree and magnitude of sacrifice, physical and otherwise, is larger, I would argue, than trying to become an actor, trying to become a writer, and whatnot. So can you just talk about that component and what you think would be a better solution?
FOXWORTH: I think bringing up the tournament model is interesting, because I can understand how some people would look at that and say that it fits here, and that’s why this is fair. But I think as a country, we’ve decided that that wasn’t fair a long time ago. There are plenty of jobs where that’s true, just about every job.
It’s like the barista at Starbucks. There are plenty of people out there who are capable of being baristas, and you could probably allow Starbucks to pit them against each other and negotiate down, down, down, down, down. But that’s not the case. We’ve instituted minimum wages and instituted lots of other laws to protect American people or American workers from these type of capitalistic urges run amok.
And the thing that’s frustrating to me is, we’ve instituted rules in professional sports — that happen to take place on college campuses — we instituted rules that are to the advantages of the institutions. But we are not interested in instituting any rules that are things that we accept as just kind of, facts and fair. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in our society that’s like, “No, let’s eliminate the minimum wage and allow this tournament model to run amok for low-wage workers.”
DUBNER: Well, the other argument though in colleges is wait a minute: free education, four years of college, what’s that worth?
FOXWORTH: It could be worth a lot, but you’re not even getting the same education as the people around you. Because you have to travel on Thursdays and Fridays, and you are not allowed to do certain majors because they conflict with your schedule. I wanted to be a computer-science major, and my academic adviser was like, “That course load is going to make it very difficult for you to make our practices, there are labs.” And blah, blah, blah, blah. And three times a week, during the winter session or the spring session, you have to go to 5 a.m. workouts, and that changes your academic experience.
There are all these things that are mandatory because your scholarship is year-to-year, and you don’t have any power to negotiate with your coach and say things like, “I want to take this so I’m not going to able to go there.” That’s just not a thing that is available. So the education that they’re receiving is not the education that people think it is.
The Duke economist Charles Clotfelter also looked at graduation rates from 58 universities that have big-time sports programs. For the general population at these schools, the graduation rate was 72 percent. For football players, it was 56 percent; for basketball players, just 42 percent. This is yet another reason that makes some people question the very existence of the N.C.A.A. Here’s the assessment of the entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who owns the N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks.
Mark CUBAN: I think it’s worthless.
DUBNER: If you could blow it up entirely what would you do? Would you have football attached to college at all?
CUBAN: I don’t mind having it attached to college, but I would make it an independent entity so that it would operate independently. Let them go get a job, let them practice as much as they need to. If I wanted to create a band I can pay them, and they can stay in school. They can practice together as much as they want. That’s the hypocrisy. If you want to be a professional athlete, you can’t practice your craft as much as you would like. There’s limits to coaching and playing with your teammates. There’s limits on jobs you can take. There’s so many different things that are bound in stone that it just doesn’t make sense.
For years, there’s been talk about reforming the N.C.A.A., but it hasn’t changed much. The Commission on College Basketball, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is advocating some reforms that can be seen as pro-athlete. But she also said this: “Our focus has been to strengthen the collegiate model — not to move toward one that brings aspects of professionalism into the game.” Which might make more sense if some aspects of college sports weren’t already at the professional level. Like coaching salaries, and TV audiences, and the expectations of the top-tier athletes. So: how likely is a substantial change? Domonique Foxworth is not optimistic.
FOXWORTH: Those guys who are on the doorsteps of having professional careers, it’s not really in their best interest to stop this now. And the people who are benefiting most from it who are not on the field, there’s really no benefit to the coaches — because coaches’ salaries are inflated because they have extra money, because they are not sending it to the players. And the rest of the teams who are funded by money generated by football and basketball. There’s no incentive there, there’s just the athletes, who don’t have much power.
Foxworth, as you’ve probably figured out by now, has thought through the entire athletic ecosystem more than most people. Besides playing in the N.F.L., he’s been an executive at both the N.F.L. and N.B.A. players’ unions, and he also got an M.B.A. from Harvard. So to understand the incentives he’s been describing, and the transition from college to pro, let’s go back to Foxworth’s own transition.
DUBNER: You were drafted, I believe, 2005, third round. So what I’m looking at here, I have no idea if this is accurate, you were paid for that year, including a signing bonus about $660,000 — that sound about right for year one?
DUBNER: Okay. And it was a three-year rookie contract. Is that right?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, it was a three-year rookie contract, with the fourth-year option, I believe.
DUBNER: Okay, so looks like your first three years paid you a total of about $1.5 million. And then in your fourth year, then you did become a free agent, moved to Atlanta; those first few years were in Denver.
FOXWORTH: They traded me. So I went through the first three years, and then I was coming up on a contract year and I played pretty well in Denver, and I knew that I needed to play well in this year because if you don’t, then the salary minimum goes up for guys after that point, so then they just go get a younger one, and you go on with the rest of your life.
So during week one, we’re getting ready for the first week of the season in Denver, they traded me to Atlanta. Atlanta was a terrible football team at that point. That was the first time when I considered going to business school. I skipped training camp. “This team is going to be terrible. I’m not going to play. And then I’ll be out of the league.”
DUBNER: But you must have a pretty good year, because the next year you signed a contract with Baltimore that paid you in year one, $8 million, year two, $9.2, and year three, $4.4 — does that sound about right?
FOXWORTH: Yeah, it was a four-year, 27, I think. In Baltimore.
DUBNER: It was a four-year, $27.2 million contract. How much of that did you actually collect?
FOXWORTH: All of it.
DUBNER: Did you have it guaranteed even though you didn’t end up playing out the whole contract?
FOXWORTH: I was on the team for three years, and then the fourth year I had taken out an insurance policy. So I got the rest of it there. So I was fortunate that the knee injury happened after I signed that deal, because if it would have happened when I was in college, or happened a year earlier, I would have been on an entirely different path.
So despite an injury that prematurely ended his career, things worked out pretty well for Foxworth. Meaning: he got paid. By the time he was 30, he was set for life — financially, at least. But consider how easily it might have been different. Consider the case of Andre Ingram. Ingram spent 10 seasons in the N.B.A.’s minor leagues — today it’s called the G-League, after its sponsor, Gatorade; it used to be the D-League, for “development.”
Andre INGRAM: So I would tell people that I played in the D League and have been playing for years. They usually notice my gray hair and wonder if I’m a coach or whatnot. At some point, they always ask, “Oh, have you ever made the big time?” And I had to tell them the same thing every time: “Well, not yet.”
That finally changed last year. Ingram, at 32 years of age, was promoted to the Los Angeles Lakers for the season’s last two games. Here’s what happened on the first shot he took in the N.B.A.:
ANNOUNCER: Down it goes! Welcome to the N.B.A., Andre Ingram!
ANNOUNCER: Makes his first try! That is awesome!
Ingram went on to score 19 points that night.
INGRAM: My brother and my niece had called told me — they said, “Hey, you are blowing up on Twitter, you’re blowing up on Instagram, you’re everywhere.”
Ingram made a great impression. But still: he was a 32-year-old rookie. Would the Lakers bring him back the following season? When we spoke with Ingram, this past summer, the Lakers had just made news by signing the much-coveted LeBron James to a four-year, $153-million deal. How would Ingram feel about sharing the court with the best player of his generation?
INGRAM: Count me along with the 100 percent of players who would love to play with LeBron. That’s a no-brainer. You won’t believe how many texts I got when he made the decision. A lot of people are already assuming that I was going to be back with the Lakers, and they were like, “Man, you get to play with LeBron.” In my head I’m like, “Man, I hope so.”
DUBNER: Either that or if he took your roster spot, that’s the the bad way of looking at it.
INGRAM: You know what, some people texted me that as well.
Unfortunately for Ingram, the Los Angeles Lakers did not bring him back. He’s playing for the South Bay Lakers of the G-League this year, his 11th season in the minors. And he’s not doing so well, averaging less than 8 points a game, with a career low in three-point shooting, his specialty. Which means that for Andre Ingram, the end of his professional career is probably pretty close.
INGRAM: I don’t sit around complaining about it, thinking it’s unfair. I just would want for people in general who watch basketball and know the game to just know that there are guys out there in the G-League now, and overseas and elsewhere, who just know how to play the game of basketball and can play it in the highest of level, including the N.B.A.
* * *
It’s easy to see professional athletes as fortunate beyond belief — getting rich for playing the game they love, yada yada. But that, as we’ve been learning today, is a very simplistic view of a complicated economic ecosystem. For one thing, it’s easy to focus on the handful of athletes at the very tippy-top of the pyramid, at the exclusion of the thousands of athletes below them.
Shawn JOHNSON: You don’t make money unless you succeed at the Olympics.
Shawn Johnson won one gold and three silver medals in gymnastics at the 2008 Olympics.
JOHNSON: How the majority of Olympic endorsements work is, you sign an Olympic endorsement, such as a Coca-Cola, a McDonald’s, Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, before the Olympics even start. But the way these contracts are structured is these athletes aren’t paid any money upfront. The only way they earn money is by winning medals. So if you sign a deal with Nike that’s, say, a million dollars, you go to the Olympics and you don’t win a medal, you don’t earn any money. And when you’re talking about thousands and thousands of athletes who have reached the pinnacle of their sport by just qualifying to the Olympics, the fact that they aren’t getting compensated for their journey that’s gotten them to that point I think is pretty extreme.
Extreme, perhaps. But also very similar to another population of amateur athletes — all the college football and basketball players who are very, very good but not quite good enough to have a pro career. And if you are that good, and lucky? Then you’re drafted by a pro team — remember, they choose you; you don’t choose them. And now you’re looking at a rookie contract, with pre-determined wages for your first several years. If you last that long. If not, the team can cut you loose. Which means your downside is unprotected at the same time that your upside is limited.
Victor MATHESON: You’re basically stuck at a way-below-market paycheck for your first three years at a minimum.
Victor Matheson is an economist at College of the Holy Cross and president of the North American Association of Sports Economists.
MATHESON: Is that made up for by the fact that you get to make these huge free-agent contracts later? Yeah, but only if you last long enough to actually make it to free agency.
Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, did make it that far — actually, he did so well in his first three seasons that Seattle gave him a contract extension worth nearly $90 million before what would have been his final season under his rookie contract. But during those first three seasons, he averaged under $1 million a year despite leading his team to two Super Bowls and winning one. And what if Wilson instead had played Major League Baseball — which he maybe could have; he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies and played some minor-league ball. In baseball, Wilson would have had to put in six years of major league service to become a free agent. Interestingly, the average career length in Major League Baseball is 5.6 years. Also interesting: rookie N.F.L. contracts are for four years, and the average N.F.L. career length?
MATHESON: The typical player plays about three seasons.
This presents a paradox. A clash of incentives that gives the leagues and teams much more leverage than the athletes. As Victor Matheson sees it, this also helps explain why a players’ strike would be very hard to organize.
MATHESON: If I’m working for Verizon on the lines fixing telephone poles, I might be willing to sit out and lose my salary for an entire year if I can get a 10 percent higher salary for the next 20 years I’m working for them. Those numbers kind of work out.
But if you’re a Major League Baseball player, if you’re an N.F.L. player, you can’t afford to lose even one season because there’s almost no increase in pay that could possibly justify you losing one season of your very, very short career. And the owners have a huge advantage over them.
FOXWORTH: They will not make that money back. It’s just physically impossible.
Domonique Foxworth was on the N.F.L. players’ union executive committee during its last collective bargaining negotiation, in 2011.
FOXWORTH: With the length of a player’s career, and how much money they could stand to make in a season, it’s really not in their best interest. Mathematically, logically, if you go through the numbers, it’s not in their best interest to actually withstand a lockout or to initiate a strike.
MATHESON: And as a matter of fact, teams themselves have stopped striking completely. All of the last major interruptions in pro sports in the United States have not been strikes, although they look like that to a fan. They’ve been lockouts. Yeah, this is the owners actually going on strike and not paying the players rather than the players refusing to work.
That’s what happened in the 2011 N.F.L. negotiations. The N.F.L. locked out the players for 132 days — although it was during the off-season, so it barely affected the run of play. The owners and the players’ union finally agreed on a 10-year deal, which saw the players’ share of revenue fall from essentially 50-50 to somewhere in the high 40’s — although the players did gain some other concessions, like funding for retirement and fewer practices. The most recent N.B.A. and N.H.L. collective bargaining agreements have, similarly, resulted in a smaller share of revenue going to the athletes. That said, those are huge, rich leagues that generate many millions of dollars for even average players. It can be a lot harder to make a living in some other pro sports.
MURPHY: Yeah it’s a pretty typical fighter story to be broke and trying to make it.
Lauren Murphy started fighting in mixed-martial arts matches in 2010; she’s currently a top-ranked flyweight fighter in the U.F.C., or Ultimate Fighting Championship.
MURPHY: There was a time when I was coming up, before I was signed to the U.F.C., where I was traveling a lot to train. I was sleeping on people’s floors. I was sleeping in their guest bedrooms. I would housesit and dog-sit for people at the gym. It’s hard to come up in fighting because you spend all your time training so you don’t have a lot of time to work.
MATHESON: If you’re trying to decide what sport to go into man, stay away from U.F.C. because they’re making a lot of revenues but not much of that is going into the athletes.
In the big team sports, Matheson told us, roughly half of the revenues are designated for the players — although, as we just noted, that share has been shrinking a bit. In the U.F.C., meanwhile, that share is much lower.
MATHESON: The amount going to the athletes there is about 10 or 15 percent of revenues.
The chief operating officer of the U.F.C., Lawrence Epstein, disputes that figure.
EPSTEIN: The 15 percent number, I don’t think that’s accurate. I mean there certainly is some fluctuation in the percentage of revenue that goes to athletes. But the reason for that primarily is that we have a variable-revenue-stream model in our company.
Meaning: the U.F.C. distributes some of its fights via pay-per-view, whereas the big team sports have bigger, more reliable TV contracts. Still, salary data for U.F.C. athletes is hard to come by, since the company is privately held and the athletes are not unionized, which means there’s no collective bargaining agreement.
Lauren MURPHY: The U.F.C. really has all the control. They can cut you on one loss. They can cut you after two losses. They can keep you around for as many fights as they want. They can renegotiate your contract. They have a lot of power.
That said, Lauren Murphy is not much of a critic of the U.F.C. Her career may not be all that lucrative but it is a career. Maybe more important, it’s given shape to her life; sports — in Murphy’s case, fighting — it can have that effect on people. And that’s part of the draw.
MURPHY: I struggled with depression and I struggled with addiction and I just became your typical high-school dropout/teenage mom in a small town. And it’s just changed my life in ways that I never could have even dreamed of back then in a small town in Alaska.
In just her third U.F.C. fight, Murphy earned a $50,000 bonus for taking part in the Fight of the Night — a fairly subjective award bestowed by U.F.C. management to the two fighters who deliver the most impressive performance on a given night’s card.
MURPHY: That bonus changed my life. I paid off a bunch of student loans with that. And I got out of debt and it was really a life-changing experience for me.
Murphy’s bonus was a great stroke of fortune. As for her guaranteed pay in the U.F.C.? That’s a different story. Fighters get paid for two things: making weight and winning. The figures vary but the most Murphy’s ever gotten was 12 and 12— $12,000 for making weight and $12,000 for a win — which, obviously, is also not guaranteed. What is guaranteed is that Murphy will train five to six hours a day for months and that U.F.C. fighters get, on average, just 2.3 matches per year.
MURPHY: I’ve only made about $15,000 in the U.F.C. so far this year. But my dream was to see how far I could take this. And for me, at least, if I wanted to be in a profession to make a shit load of money, I would have been a lawyer or something — a doctor or something like that. I mean yes, I’d like to make more. I think anybody on earth wants to make more. If you ask them, “Do you want to make more money?” everybody’s going to be like, “Yes.” So I would love to make more money. I certainly think I’m worth more money.
MATHESON: It might have more to do with the fact that this is a fairly new sport that may be still trying to find its way.
Victor Matheson again.
MATHESON: But that’s that’s way less than you’re making elsewhere.
DUBNER: Now do you anticipate that changing, if we were to talk in five or 10 years? U.F.C. is making a lot of money and they’ve been growing really fast. Do you think that the athletes will eventually get the leverage to get that share up to 30, 50, 60 percent of revenues?
MATHESON: Well, we did not see that happen in any of the other individual sports until we had those athletes joined together in some sort of important way.
The athletes’ unions — or players’ associations, as they’re often called — negotiate not only pay scales but also work conditions, schedules, health and safety, and various benefits. In other words, they do what labor unions have always done. The N.F.L. Players Association is, in fact, a member of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the big federation of unions that include the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Here, again, is DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association.
SMITH: I think it would be fair to say, and people should understand, that we are labor. And the National Football League and its member teams are our management. And there is no difference in the hostility between us than there would be between management writ large and labor writ large in America. We literally have engaged in hundreds of legal fights with the league and the teams in the 10 years since I’ve been here.
Smith, we should say, is a lawyer who’s worked in private practice as well as at the U.S. Department of Justice.
SMITH: The history of labor and management in the United States has been one for the most part where management has successfully lobbied and changed laws through litigation that have affected a net negative for employees. So we don’t necessarily shy away from making sure that we are aggressive in the way in which we protect our players’ interest. Whether it’s issues of health care, issues of control, issues of free speech, issues of injury care, issues over money, shares of revenue.
The league locked us out in 2011, and that means not only cutting off the players’ right to earn a living but they cut off the health insurance for thousands of players’ wives and dozens of players’ wives who were expecting children during the lockout. They’ve issued and engaged in legislative action to take away our players’ right to medical care and certainly we’ve had our skirmishes over commissioner discipline and revenue.
DUBNER: Now as I understand it, some team owners are supporting legislation in a handful of states that would take away worker’s comp from injured players. Do I have that right?
SMITH: Yeah, we’ve probably had somewhere between 10 and 15 state legislature fights with bills supported by team owners to take workers’ comp away from professional athletes, which is terrible.
DUBNER: And their argument then is what? That it shouldn’t be—
SMITH: Their argument is that they are cheap.
DUBNER: And tell me about some of the other legal challenges you’ve filed whether against the league or legislatures whether it has to do with healthcare, revenue share, or whatnot.
Considering all the issues that N.F.L. players face — and considering that they play in the richest sports league in the history of the world and have a relatively strong union — you might think athletes in lesser sports would like to emulate them. But not necessarily.
MURPHY: I’ve been contacted a couple times now by people that want to unionize and I just have a really hard time getting on board with it.
That again is U.F.C. fighter Lauren Murphy.
MURPHY: I would love to see fighters get signed to the U.F.C. and right off the bat they’re making way more money — enough to live off of for an entire year. I think that would be great, but I don’t know if it’s feasible. I don’t know what the U.F.C.’s finances are or how the budgets work out or how any of that works.
Part of that mystery is intentional — the U.F.C., as we mentioned, is privately owned. An investor group led by the W.M.E.-I.M.G. agency bought it in 2016 for about $4 billion.
MURPHY: If we unionize, and suddenly W.M.E.-I.M.G. says, “Okay, well this isn’t what we anticipated when we bought the U.F.C. so we’re going to have to cut out a bunch of divisions so that we can afford to pay the fighters that we have left.” And they get rid of the less popular divisions, say. And now you’re getting rid of the fringe weight classes and the women’s weight classes and stuff like that. Well, now I’ve gone from maybe making a smaller portion of the pie to making nothing.
Murphy’s situation highlights one of the common problems for any sort of collective action, whether in sports labor or anywhere. The people with the most to gain — the Lauren Murphys of the world — usually don’t have much leverage; they can just be replaced. The superstars, meanwhile, do have leverage but often have little incentive to push for collective action.
One exception was the tennis champion Billie Jean King, who in 1973 threatened to boycott the U.S. Open unless it awarded equal prize money for women and men. The U.S. Tennis Association met her demands. King also helped found the Women’s Tennis Association, which pushed for equal prize money in all the major tournaments, and has helped turn tennis into one of the few sports in which the women’s competition is arguably as high-profile as the men’s.
There’s a movement currently underway in beach volleyball to gain more leverage for the athletes, again with a female superstar leading the charge.
WALSH JENNINGS: For so long, it’s been one top athlete raising their hand saying, “That’s not enough,” and if one top athlete boycotts who cares, and the divide-and-conquer strategy happens all the time.
That, again, is Kerri Walsh Jennings, one of the most decorated and high-profile players in beach volleyball history.
WALSH JENNINGS: The athletes have no leverage because the athletes aren’t unified and we’ve been told for so long about your sport is small, this is what you deserve this is as good as it gets.
In 2017, Walsh Jennings was part of a group of players that tried to negotiate a new deal with the A.V.P., the Association of Volleyball Professionals, which runs the biggest beach-volleyball tour in the country, with eight events a year. It’s not a big money-maker for the athletes.
WALSH JENNINGS: The top player last year made, I think, just under or just over $38,000. We pay for our training, we pay for our coaches, we pay for travel, we pay for hotel. And that was the top player in the country.
Like many sports leagues and tours, the A.V.P. operates in a way that might make you think “monopoly.”
WALSH JENNINGS: So they own you for 365 days for possibly eight days of work that you’re probably not even — you maybe if you lose your first two, you’re maybe making 500 bucks. And it’s just the athletes are being held hostage. Basically a gun was held to the players’ head, saying, “If you don’t sign this, we’re going to fold the tour.” There was no other alternative. We got calls the night before the deadline. Girls crying, saying, “Kerri, we want to sit with you and fight with you but I can’t pay rent unless I play in this tournament next week.”
In the end, Walsh Jennings refused to sign the contract but she’s sympathetic to the players who did sign.
WALSH JENNINGS: Oh, for sure. And I understand they had no other choice. And some people never agreed with us. They’re like “I believe this is it, and we should be grateful that A.V.P. is giving us these limited opportunities.” I was like, “That’s totally fine.” I’m the C.E.O. of my life. I do not want to give the reins to my life and my success to someone else’s hands and I do not want to be kept small.
As one of the stars of her sport, Walsh Jennings had the leverage to walk away. To her, it wasn’t just about the money; she feels the A.V.P. doesn’t have a vision for growing the sport in a way that will benefit the athletes.
WALSH JENNINGS: I went in October or November of 2016 and said “Can you please lay out the next four years? We have this contract coming up. Please give me your plans for growth for all these things.” There were zero plans for growth. They were going to go away from TV. It was going to be an exclusive contract for eight events, maybe up to 10 by 2020. They would not increase the prize money. That wasn’t in their business model, they said.
So she’s started an alternate tour, called p1440 — the “p” is for “platform” and 1440 for the number of minutes in a day; Walsh Jennings wants to push people to use every minute wisely.
WALSH JENNINGS: We knew in creating p1440 that if we were just to be another volleyball property that hosts events, we would not be a sustainable business. And it’s competition, health and wellness, personal development, and entertainment. So we are a festival, we’re not a volleyball tournament; we are a full-blown festival.
One big problem: a lot of the players that Walsh Jennings would like to play in her events are under an exclusive A.V.P. contract.
WALSH JENNINGS: So the A.V.P. has eight events a year. If you want to play anywhere else you have to ask for dispensation and everyone who’s asked for dispensation to play in our events — even though we scheduled around their events, were not conflicting at all, were in their off-season — they’ve been told no.
Walsh Jennings is 40 years old — fairly ancient for a competitive athlete. She’s preparing now for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which will likely be her last. If nothing else, her new startup league is a great project to be involved in when her playing days are finally over. There’s a famous saying: every athlete dies twice — once when they draw their last breath, the other when they hang it up. There’s a point at which they’ll stop doing what they’ve been doing since they were kids, the thing that’s driven them and, often, given shape to their lives. It’s inevitable; and it’s dreaded, a sort of living afterlife.
REDICK: I think about the end, meaning the specific moment that it ends. I think about the moment I tell my wife. I think about the moment I tell my family. I think about those moments.
That’s J.J. Redick, who’s playing in his 13th season in the N.B.A., currently with the Philadelphia 76ers.
REDICK: And it’s anxiety-inducing, sometimes if I’m having a dark moment and I think of that moment, I cry like. I think about what I’m going to do after basketball on a daily basis. And there’s a level of fear of the other side. I hate to say this but so much of my identity and any professional athlete is wrapped up in your sport. Since I was eight or nine years old I’ve been a basketball player, it’s what I’ve done.
MURPHY: I think that’s a question that a lot of fighters really struggle with.
Lauren Murphy of the U.F.C. is 35 years old.
MURPHY: Fighting kind of becomes your whole identity, and because it takes so much of our time it’s our entire lives. It can be hard to move on.
This entwined identity — personal and professional — is something that Sudhir Venkatesh has been studying for years.
Sudhir VENKATESH: I’m a professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York.
Venkatesh tries to understand how individuals operate within groups — in all sorts of settings.
VENKATESH: Yeah, my method is to spend as much time with groups, tribes, people, get to know their world a little bit. I started with street gangs, boy — a long time ago, about 30 years ago. Gun traffickers and prostitutes, people who are doing all sorts of illegal things, And since then I spent a couple of years at the F.B.I. And that’s my chosen profession in life, spend as much time with people and get their story.
He’s had a lot of success getting their stories. But professional athletes are particularly tricky.
VENKATESH: It’s a little difficult for me to just show up on the sideline and put a hoodie on and pretend that I’m a member of the team. So I have to create opportunities to observe.
One such opportunity came via a program he developed to teach athletes, often toward the end of their careers, about business skills or philanthropy. This let him see, up close, how they were adjusting to the afterlife.
VENKATESH: Well, the life of an athlete, from very early in their career is dominated and regimented by people other than themselves.
This kind of all-encompassing, controlled setting has a name in sociology — it’s called a total institution.
VENKATESH: An example of a total institution would be prison. So your day is structured from the moment you get up, they tell you where to go, what to eat, when to eat, when to shower, and so on.
Venkatesh was interested to see how athletes, having spent so much time in a total institution, could adjust to a more fluid setting like an office. He found there were some surprising advantages.
VENKATESH: A lot of professional athletes, I find, handle interpersonal conflict very well, and they are used to it. They are used to being told that they didn’t perform well, they need to perform better, they need to work better in a team, they need to listen better. All the sorts of things that many of us, including me, are very fearful of in an office setting — we’re going to get reviewed, we’re going to get assessed, it’s often done by email late at night. And these folks are really, really good just having someone walk up to them or going up to somebody and not having it out, but just getting past whatever’s in-between and blocking them.
But this upside, Venkatesh discovered, has a downside: most of us non-former athletes aren’t accustomed to having someone get in our face like that! Venkatesh recalls one former football player — he calls him Derrick — who was working in sales at an investment firm.
VENKATESH: He noticed that on the floor, there were no open spaces. He was used to locker rooms — he was used to not having a lot of privacy. And it was difficult for him to work in a team setting when what he was supposed to do was to use telecommunications or e-mail to make appointments or to reach out.
And instead he would just be going down, knocking on doors really hard, going to offices, crossing the boundaries. And people just got really scared because here’s this very big guy coming at them. And for Derrick there it was actually the opposite, that when people were closing doors or people were sending him e-mails, he felt like that was impersonal. That was not polite. That was not effective. “Why don’t we just solve the problem immediately and move forward?” So he had to go through a little bit of training. And you can imagine that that’s not part of the normal onboarding that that a company might do.
Transitioning to this living afterlife can present all sorts of challenges. Studies of former N.F.L. and N.B.A. players — even the ones who’ve made a lot of money — show they are grotesquely prone to bankruptcy. And remember: these are the lucky ones who made it. But the demands of their profession can make it really hard to have time to acquire real-world skills.
There’s also the long-term health consequences of playing competitive sports: a recent study of athletes from Indiana University found that, by middle age, they were twice as likely as non-athletes to have health problems, including chronic injuries, that affected their day-to-day activities. But even if you make it into middle age with your health, and with your finances intact — there’s still the risk of a full-blown existential crisis.
FOXWORTH: I mean, most people’s journeys are so much longer that when they do succeed, they die a few years after or something. You know? It’s an interesting thing to happen to somebody at this age. It feels like more of a midlife thing. And for athletes it’s a unique thing. Successful athletes, it’s a unique thing, that in your 20’s or 30’s you’re like, “Now what?”
Part of it is missing the action. Lauren Murphy thinks about the people she trains with.
MURPHY: I was surrounded by a team and I had never experienced anything like that before in my life. We all had this thing in common where we wanted to compete and we all wanted to do well and we supported each other in that. And when you bleed and sweat and cry with somebody every day, you get to be pretty close to them.
There’s also the fear that you’ll never be this good at anything again. Or as relevant. J.J. Redick:
REDICK: Look, the reality is you have a lot more power, a lot more juice, a lot more relevancy when it says your name and it says active N.B.A. player versus your name, retired N.B.A. player. So me as a person, nothing will have changed five years from now. But I won’t have active N.B.A. player next to my name.
The thought that crosses your mind is like, “I’m really good at basketball. I’ve done it at a high level for a long time and I’ve had success and it’s provided me a very nice living.” And then you’re like, “What if I try something else and I’m just awful at it?” I feel like I’m as prepared as anyone for the other side of it and it still scares me.
Domonique Foxworth thought he was pretty prepared too. He and his wife had a couple kids. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do — other than keep winning.
FOXWORTH: I went to business school because I was like, “Alright, now I’m going to keep competing.” I’ll go to the best business school and then I got there. And I was surprised with how much mushy, soft classes that we had. That was about our feelings and integrity and all that stuff.
And I do remember one of the professors said that — it wasn’t to me directly, it was just to the class, but it felt like he was talking to me directly. But he said something to the effect of, “The operating system that you used to get here may not be the operating system that you need going forward.” And that resonated with me, because I feel like that’s definitely true for me. But I don’t know, they don’t just like release updates for humans. So modifying my operating system is a slower, more challenging process.
Foxworth thought he’d like being chief operating officer of the N.B.A. players’ union, in New York.
FOXWORTH: My wife was pregnant with our third child, and she was not feeling good, and I was getting up at 6:30 a.m. to ride the subway to work with a bunch of other people who weren’t happy about where they were going to work. And I remember thinking like, “Am I happy? I have enough money that I don’t have to be unhappy.”
For fun, he started writing — about sports. Now he writes and does broadcasting for a variety of ESPN outlets.
FOXWORTH: I went to business school in part because I fancy myself as a smart person who is more than an athlete. And so there’s parts of me that’s embarrassed that I write about sports. Talk about sports. But then there’s parts of me that’s like, “This is awesome.” I get to pick up my kids from school and take them to school. It’s not that like “Oh, my life is boring.” It’s like, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the best thing I can with this fortunate situation that I’m in?” What also exacerbates it, I think, is a feeling of loneliness, honestly, which — and it’s not like — I have three kids and my wife, and I’m not alone, obviously. And I love them and I have fun with them.
But throughout my life, I have been almost myopically focused on a goal, which — being focused on that goal gave me purpose and I’m sure I’m going to butcher the Nietzsche quote, but it’s something to the effect of, “When a man has a why, he can bear almost any how.” And I was — I don’t drink now, I never drank in my life. I never smoke weed. I was singularly focused on doing everything. Every decision I made was like, “Alright, I’m going to get closer to this goal.” The people I was close with in high school, those aren’t my friends anymore. People I was close with in college, not really my friends anymore. And then at 35, I’m in D.C., where my wife has a bunch of family and friends, friends that she’s been close with since they were in the second grade, and I’m like, “I don’t really have that.” So I certainly don’t feel sad or anything, but these are things that I am becoming more aware of now. I feel I’m in a, a perpetual state of transition, which is interesting and uncomfortable at the same time.
Thanks to Domonique Foxworth and all the other athletes we heard from today and throughout our “Hidden Side of Sports” series — also the team and league officials, scholars, and everyone else. If you want to hear my full conversation with Foxworth — it was a long one, and fascinating — we’ll be publishing that soon.
* * *
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Anders Kelto, Derek John, Alvin Melathe, and Alison Craiglow with help from Matt Stroup and Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Greg Rippin and Zack Lapinski. We had help this week from Nellie Osborne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Mark Cuban, owner of the N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks.
- Domonique Foxworth, retired N.F.L. cornerback.
- Andre Ingram, N.B.A. G-League player for the South Bay Lakers.
- Shawn Johnson, gymnast and American Olympian.
- Victor Matheson, economist at College of the Holy Cross.
- Lauren Murphy, U.F.C. fighter.
- J.J. Redick, N.B.A. player for the Philadelphia 76ers.
- DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the N.F.L. players’ union.
- Mark Teixeira, ESPN analyst.
- Sudhir Venkatesh, sociologist at Columbia University.
- Kerri Walsh Jennings, professional beach volleyball player and American Olympian.
- Big-Time Sports in American Universities by Charles Clotfelter (Cambridge University Press 2011).
- The Economics of Sports, Sixth Edition by Michael Leeds, Peter von Allmen, and Victor Matheson (Routledge, 2018).
- “How Sports Became Us (Ep. 349),” Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “How to Stop Being a Loser (Ep. 350),” Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “Here’s Why You’re Not an Elite Athlete (Ep. 351),” Freakonomics Radio (2018).
- “Think Like a Winner (Ep. 363),” Freakonomics Radio (2019).
- “Inside the Sports-Industrial Complex (Ep. 364),” Freakonomics Radio (2019).