The Death Of Meritocracy In Sports Pay

  • by , Columnist, December 12, 2023

I’ve always believed that sports and the values they signal are inextricably linked to the cultural tenor of our country.  When we’re young, as athletes and budding fans, sports ideally teaches us the benefits of teamwork, self-discipline, accountability, how to get along with others, how to follow rules -- and that hard work and perseverance bring success. These values remain aspects of sports that draw us to them as fans and participants. But I fear that to a large extent they have been marginalized and superseded by instant gratification and all of its baggage.

I can still remember the allure of learning, when I was first getting into sports, that journeymen NHL players were earning similar incomes to many of the grown-ups that I knew. This added a level of connection that was personally satisfying.  Another example that resonated was the structure of the PGA Tour, where player performance was the only income arbiter; Miss the cut and earn nothing.  It was the ultimate meritocracy, and the struggle was compelling.



I’ve always been a capitalist at heart, but the acceleration and breadth of financial gateways now afforded to college athletes through NIL deals is compromising the product.  Similarly, performance-independent earnings for NHL players and PGA TOUR members have expanded into the stratosphere, commensurate with ever-growing rights fees.

There has been much recent discussion about how the proposed newly structured, for-profit, PGA Tour entity seeks to provide equity and profit-sharing components for its members.  NCAA President Charlie Baker’s proposal from last week provides for direct financial compensation to college athletes by their institutions in a world where the transfer portal has spawned a Wild West of free agency.

Even youth sports are affected.  Little League International announced last week that beginning in 2025, kids entering the program can choose whichever league they want to play for, regardless of geography.  I can see future showcases for four-year-olds seeking to latch on to the tournament team from whatever town offers the best post-game cake and cookies.

These developments further erode the unique grass roots meritocracy that once differentiated sports -- and fracture a unique connectivity that players once enjoyed with fans.  They remove the allure of watching someone low on the TOUR money list, scratching out a living and fighting for that first win.

We can no longer marvel at the journey of the blue-chip college athlete, because he or she has already earned more than most fans will in their lifetimes. To take the construct further, I ask whether these automatic paydays are emblematic of both the heightened sense of divisiveness, instant gratification and personal entitlement that our research shows are each at an apex in American culture today.

Some argue that these new values have made us less competitive, more dependent on others and more accepting of mediocrity.  On the simplest level, I just want to have a modern-day underdog to root for.

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