As we approach the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, the state of socialism is not especially encouraging. The socialist reign of Hugo Chávez and successor Nicolas Maduro have reduced oil-rich Venezuela to pre-historic conditions with 4000 percent inflation and near starvation levels of food supply. In Cuba, the socialist government continues to limp by with an economy frozen in the 1950s. Indeed, there is only one real success of socialism in the world: the National Football League. When Marx said that “Democracy is the road to socialism,” he could easily point to the 32 owners of America’s football teams. It turns out that socialism works really well for billionaires in a small group with an effective monopoly on an industry.
Indeed, the NFL could be viewed as the most successful socialist system in the world. While it might not work for workers, it seems to work well for billionaires. Revenues from the billions in television profits and much of the ticket and merchandise sales is divided among the fellow travelers of the gridiron every year. They follow centrally dictated salary caps and impose an iron-hand of centralized control through the Commissioner of the NFL.
The NFL displays two common characteristics of centrally planned systems: an insularity from market or political demands and an intolerance for dissent. Both were evident recently as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sought $2 million in fines against Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for opposing Goodell’s contract renewal. Goodell and the NFL Bolshevik block declared Jones guilty of “detrimental conduct” to the league. Jones was viewed as the ultimate Menshevik (or minority man) seeking to challenge the status quo and, worse yet, seeking to rally fans in seeking reforms.
The owners of the PRF (the People’s Republic of Football) are actually far less invested in success than the fans. A study in the International Journal of Sport Finance showed that the revenue sharing arrangement means that teams are actually not impacted significantly on whether they have a winning or losing season. A 10 percent increase in regular season wins for an average team was found to produce only a 0.14 percent increase in revenue. The NFL acts much like the older Soviet State Planning Committee known as Gosplan in carrying out five year plans, including a five-year contract for Goodell. It is a plan that is all about squeezing out profit as opposed to satisfying fans.
Putting aside the Green Bay Packers (which is actually owned by the proletariat), the NFL teams have created a socialist system for the ultra rich. The owners view success as the bottomline, not the end zone. And it is working.
Margaret Thatcher once said that “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.” That is not a problem with a small group that controls the most popular sport in the United States. The value of teams are up 22 percent over last year with an average worth of $1.65 billion. Those values have tripled over the last five years and, for the first year, every team is now worth at least $1 billion.
The insularity of owners from their fans is telling in the Goodell controversy. Goodell is hated by a huge number of fans. Indeed, it is safe to say that there is no one more hated in football, including by NFL players. Goodell cannot appear at the annual football draft events without being drown out with booing and catcalls. Goodell is widely viewed as consistently putting both fans and at times players last in his decisions. He began as an intern and was virtually raised inside the NFL Gosplan in a culture of maximizing revenue output and minimizing fan input.
Many accuse Goodell of being part of the NFL’s resistance to dealing with concussions, a record detailed in a scathing 2016 investigation by Democratic members on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Goodell also is known as a commissioner who engaged in open and shocking demands for himself, the owners, and his staff. Cities seeking to host the Super Bowl are reportedly shaken down for a guarantee of four “top quality” golf courses, two “top quality” bowling lanes, including the waiver of any fees, free presidential suites in the best hotels and free police escorts for team owners. In his latest contract, Goodell notably demanded not only roughly $50 million a year but lifetime use of a private jet and lifetime health insurance for his family. The jet was understandable because Goodell is so despised by fans that he would have a hard time walking through an airport without being assaulted.
So if Goodell is so radioactive and hated, why would the owners give him a massive new contract? Precisely because he is so hated. Goodell takes the heat for owners who continually milk fans and cities of every possible dime while offering little in return. While many fans have Goodell voodoo dolls on their desks, most would be hard pressed to name more than two NFL owners. They are insulated by their own fans by revenue sharing and certainly do not care about how fans generally feel about the NFL. Goodell serves as a useful goat for owners to carry away the anger of fans. Even the uproar over the anthem protests did not move the owners until the television revenues fell this year, but even then the NFL refused to make the rule in the NFL Manual requiring all stand for the anthem (section a62 63) part of the mandatory provisions of the NFL Rulebook. Even with the dip in fans, the NFL will still post record profits.
That brings us back to Jones.
Karl Marx said that “[t]he meaning of peace is the absence of opposition to socialism.” Jones broke from the cartel in publicly criticizing Goodell and disclosing aspects of his bloated contract. He was appealing to the fans, who are the least relevant party in the NFL governance and decisionmaking.
As shown in Venezuela, the centralized control of an economy often leads to greater controls over free speech and dissent. The NFL owners are irate that Jones would ever appeal to fans. Jones threatened litigation over Goodell’s reappointment but notably did not sue. However, owners are using a provision to force reimbursement for litigation related costs – a move pushed by Goodell as what is widely viewed as retaliation against Jones. Goodell wants to reinforce that the NFL is no democracy and, to use football parlance, he was off-sides when he went over to the fans.
Putting aside his motivations (some say he was steaming over the penalty against running back Ezekiel Elliott for alleged domestic assault), Jones was a dangerous display of independent thought in a system where revenues and policies are centrally controlled. As Kim Jong-un has explained, centralized planners must “fight staunchly” to oppose “moves for ideological and cultural infiltration.” The most dangerous infiltration for NFL owners would be the fans and their interests.
For the moment, the NFL owners are safe. One would hope, however, that after Goodell is again booed by fans at the upcoming NFL draft, the owners will take time to raise a glass on the 200th birthday of the man most responsible for their success: the old Gipper himself, Karl Marx.