In honor of the start of the baseball season, we are happy to feature this guest blog post from Joseph Gerics. Mr. Gerics is associate superintendent for secondary education for the Archdiocese of New York.
News item: Injured Kansas City Royals pitcher Gil Meche retired, despite his guaranteed $12 million contract for the coming season. “I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.”
Even before LeBron James’ ballyhooed “The Decision” to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, fans derided former favorites as mercenaries or even turncoats when they left for other teams via free agency. At times their ire is spiked with humor—the slogan “Looks like Jesus, throws like Mary, acts like Judas” accompanied the longhaired Johnny Damon when he deserted the Boston Red Sox and sheared his locks to play for the hated New York Yankees.
So Gil Meche’s team-first mentality seems a breath of fresh air. Torn between rooting for “their” team and for a favorite player who may switch sides, some argue that one can’t be a fan of a team any more, but only of individual players. Unfortunately such a position doesn’t go far enough.
In 2006, Meche signed a $55 million contract with the Kansas City Royals. He went 9-13 with a 3.67 ERA in 2007 and 14-11 with a 3.98 ERA in 2008, both years giving his team over 200 innings. Plagued by injuries the next two years, he went 6-10 with a 5.09 ERA and 0-4 with a 6.66 ERA.
“Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad,” Meche said. Apparently wanting to do the right thing, he retired.
Sports writers still upholding the illusion of fanhood, i.e., loyalty of an organization to a player, a player to an organization, and a fan to both, applauded his decision. But was it really the right thing to do?
Consider Kant’s principle of universalizability—an action is good if everyone in similar circumstances should perform that action. Suppose all professional athletes whose performance does not justify their bloated contracts followed Meche’s lead. Teams would suddenly be freed from significant financial obligations, permitting them to sign even more bloated contracts, further enhancing the advantage of large-market teams in attracting free agents. Even the Mets would likely be able to assemble a team with a winning record!
Consequentialists who reject deontological ethics might apply the principle of utility—Does the action produce the greatest good for the greatest number? Meche’s retirement saved the Kansas City Royals, which drew 1.6 million last year, $12 million. Will the Royals accordingly reduce their average ticket price by $7.50 to make games more affordable for fans? Not only is the answer No; it’s absurd to even ask.
Meche’s retirement will only improve the Royals’ bottom line. To what end? Why not take the pay and donate it to a charitable organization? Does enriching the Kansas City Royals serves the greater good?
Moreover Meche’s decision exemplifies the rampant relativism marking so much of moral discourse today. He chose to salve his own conscience because he “felt bad” once he realized he wasn’t earning his compensation. However, Meche’s contract represents a legal standard binding both parties, player and franchise. Instead of abiding by its provisions despite the discomfort caused by an unearned $12 million, Meche stated that the team had paid him enough over the years. He chose to violate the sanctity of the contract in favor of vague personal standards like “honor” and the old-fashioned notion of earning one’s keep. What unbridled hubris, to place such personal values above objective standards!
Ultimately Meche’s action indicts modern American capitalism. This slippery slope should be avoided—he might as well have called other highly compensated individuals “greedy!” After the financial crisis of 2007 it should be clear that market capitalism has dichotomized compensation from the production of actual value. Devising and packaging complex financial “products” such as derivatives is more highly valued than manufacturing actual goods or providing actual services.
Nor is this a new development. According to Business Week in 1980 CEO’s of major corporations were paid 42 times the average hourly worker’s salary. One decade later CEO’s were paid 85 times as much, and in 2000, 531 times as much. Meche’s action challenges this disconnect between value and compensation upon which our economic system has come to rely. If his action goes unchallenged, soon laborers everywhere will be raising questions about the justice of blue-collar versus white-collar compensation.
The sacrifice of one’s scruples in accepting unearned compensation of $12 million is a small price to pay for the greater good of sustaining the economic status quo. If he really wanted to do the right thing, Meche would set aside his qualms and bear the burden of an unearned $12 million. Instead he took the easy way out.
Meche’s ostensibly selfless action should be recognized as selfish and criticized rather than applauded. These difficult financial times call for individuals like Meche to make personal sacrifices in order to maintain the legitimacy of the growing gap between the highest earners and everyone else, and implicitly the salary structures of banks and other financial service organizations that are “too big to fail” and have been saved on the backs of the masses.
If we slip into a sentimental endorsement of Meche’s decision, the assumptions of modern professional sports would come under a careful scrutiny the institution cannot bear. Erstwhile fans must abandon outmoded ways of conceiving one’s relation to a team—sorry, I meant “franchise”—in terms of emotional investment and loyalty, and accept their reduced role as income generators. We are not fans, but only customers who buy tickets, watch commercials and pay cable or satellite fees. Nostalgic ideals like honor and loyalty must be relegated to the past and forgotten—and the sooner, the better.
Remember when athletes were heroes, middle-class fans could afford season tickets, and owners were more than venture capitalists? Neither do I.