Second-Tier Pro Athletes Are Modern-Day Serfs
The income distributions of many professions look like pyramids: A few very well-paid people at the top, a smaller number of well-off journeymen in the middle and lots of struggling hopefuls at the bottom. That pyramid is especially steep in professional sports: Lower-ranked athletes lack the most basic protections afforded to other workers.
The International Federation of Professional Footballers, an organization that represents 65,000 professional soccer players, published a report detailing the plight of the many athletes who barely make a living wage in the world's most popular team sport. According to FIFPro, 45 percent of pro soccer players -- including 32 percent in affluent Europe -- make less than $1,000 per month. Just 2 percent -- those in the world's wealthiest leagues in the U.K., Spain, Italy, Germany and France -- make $60,000 a month or more.
This mirrors the situation in U.S. professional sports. A Minor League baseball player' salary starts at $1,100 a month, paid only during the season. In AAA teams, the starting salary is $2,125 per month.
A journalist or lawyer at the bottom of the professional hierarchy makes more than that. A musician hoping to break through can make even less, but second jobs and supplementary teaching incomes are common. In pro sports, there's usually no time to work a second job, and players often compromise on education. According to FIFPro, 72 percent of soccer players have gone no further than high school.
Besides, other professionals at the bottom of their pyramids don't have to put up with the kind of treatment and working conditions endured by low-level pro athletes. According to the FIFPro report, 41 percent of players worldwide experience salary delays, sometimes for months, and 29 percent are forced to change clubs against their will. In some countries, such as Turkey, the Czech Republic and Poland, most players lack the most basic worker protections. Player unions don't have much power anywhere because the average length of a contract is just two years: A club owner can just wait it out if there's a conflict.
U.S. conditions for lower-level athletes are little better. The Major League Baseball Players's Association only protects the rights of players who make it to the top. Club owners expect players to compete fiercely for top spots and they discard those who don't make it. Last summer, two U.S. Congress members introduced a bill, "Save America's Pastime Act," which would exempt Minor League players from minimum-wage laws. The drafters argued that complying with such measures would kill off Minor League teams. In reality, Major League club owners would just need to spend more on their affiliates, which they need to find and train star players -- but since Major League Baseball is exempt from antitrust laws, it wants to keep setting low salaries for the more dispensable players without interference.
In effect, the lower-level players are indentured workers who aren't covered by the civilized world's employment laws and standards. Their aspirations to making tens of millions like Cristiano Ronaldo or Alex Rodriguez are pipe dreams. These modern-day gladiators go out on the playing field to face injuries and abuse. According to FIFPro, 10 percent of players have experienced physical violence -- most at the hands of fans -- without any guarantees that they'll be properly treated or even paid. FIFPro says a player of 33, at the end of his career, has an 11 percent chance of having been approached by match-fixers. There's widespread doping, too -- to get to the top and to stay there.
The plight of these players is not often discussed, and doesn't elicit much sympathy, perhaps because top athletes' pay is so extravagant. Still, people turn out and and tune to watch the millionaires play. And without the athletes who don't quite make it, those whose professional careers begin inauspiciously and end unremarkably, there would be no stars.
Sports shouldn't be exempt from labor market rules. Governments and legislators shouldn't treat them any differently than other workers who have come to expect a living wage and a legally binding employment contract. If club owners are happy to exploit the stiff competition for top spots to mistreat less fortunate players, there should be tighter rules on both a national and an international level to lower the pressure a notch.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at firstname.lastname@example.org