Best of Biblical Conservatism: Are Salary Caps in Professional Sports Anti-Capitalist?

This week, since I'm on my annual Christmas vacation, I've been posting "The Best of Biblical Conservatism" with selections from 2011's ten most popular posts. Today's was originally published on April 4, 2011.

I'm going to break off from my usual directly political posts briefly, thanks to a fascinating conversation I had with a twitter friend, @repub9989.  (PS as a Conservative I strongly recommend following him...even if he is a Yankee fan.) 

My friend and I got into a very in-depth debate recently about whether or not it was proper, free-market principles to have a salary cap in professional sports leagues.  Of the four major sports in America (that's baseball, basketball, football and hockey, for those of you from Palm Beach County, FL), three have salary caps.  The National Basketball Association (NBA) has what's known as a soft-cap, which means there are certain exceptions that allow teams to go over that cap.  The National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) have hard-caps, which means there are relatively few (if any) circumstances which allow a team to go over that cap.  Major League Baseball (MLB) has no salary cap at all.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a fan of the New York Mets, who have the 5th highest payroll (approx $135 million projected for 2011) in the major leagues and my aforementioned friend is a fan of the New York Yankees, who have the highest payroll (approx $200 million projected for 2011) in the major leagues.   I mention this because neither one of us roots for a team in a small market or with a small payroll. 

The argument my friend gave was that the free market should dictate the salary a player can earn, thus if one team is willing to pay a player a certain amount to thus improve the team and make it better than all other teams, that should not be hindered.  I understand the argument.  As a free-market capitalist, I do not want government at any level deciding how much any business can pay it's employees. 

That being said, I also believe a private business or organization of businesses can decide to put whatever restrictions upon itself as it sees fit. Major League Baseball (henceforth abbreviated to MLB) as an organization puts other restrictions on competition, and nobody argues with it. I'm not talking about banning illegal performance enhancing drugs, either. Rather I speak of legal changes an individual team could make to change the fortunes of their team.  Consider that MLB rules require that the center field wall be no less than 400 ft from home plate (there are tiny discrepancies allowed, for example Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia's center field wall is 398 ft from home).  Other walls must be at least 325 ft. from the plate.

Also, although aluminum bats are perfectly legal to purchase and use as an apparatus within the context of a baseball game in the United States, MLB has decided to not allow them in their games. This is a choice that the organization of teams has made to be a rule as part of their competition.  Further, a team may only have 25 players on it's active roster.  Other entertainment businesses, of course, are not restricted from hiring more employees to make their business stronger.  For example, a Hollywood movie may hire as many actors as it likes to for a film.  So could a theater company.  A circus can have as many performers as it likes.  Yet the 30 businesses within major league baseball are restricted to 25 performers.  Is this anti-capitalist too?

The answer is no, and neither is a salary cap, provided this decision is made by MLB itself, and not forced upon it by government.  The NFL, NHL and NBA have all chosen as organizations have chosen to put those restrictions on their competition in an effort to have a better overall product.  Herein lies the difference between my opinion and that of other Conservatives on the matter.  Those who disagree with me see each team as an individual business enterprise (which they are) endeavoring to best compete against the other individual business enterprises (the other teams).  I tend to look at MLB as one organization that is in competition with movie theaters, live theaters, restaurants, amusement parks, other sports leagues, and all other forms of entertainment, competing for the recreation dollars of all Americans.

Yes, there is most certainly competition going on between the individual teams, and that is what makes the game entertaining.  I love baseball, it is my #1 favorite sport.  However, one cannot argue that the NFL is now the #1 spectator sport in America.  I suggest that part of the reason the NFL does so well is the fact that there is a salary cap, and that pretty much any team with smart drafting and allocation of funds can win next year's Super Bowl (even my lousy Miami Dolphins, assuming they finally find a Quarterback to replace Dan Marino...who retired in 2000, sigh).

Another issue that some Conservatives like to claim as "anti-capitalist" is the NFL and NBA requiring players to play at least one year of college basketball (in the case of the NBA) and play at least two years of college football (in the case of the NFL).  Meanwhile, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League do not require any college experience.  Many believe that if an individual has the skills to play at the NBA or NFL level after high school and an NFL or NBA team is willing to draft them, they should be allowed.  Is that anti-capitalist?

Again, I say no.  Why?  Raise your hand if your current job requires a college degree or a certain amount of experience to be hired.  Unless you're in an entry-level, non-skilled job, chances are there are education and/or a certain number of years of experience for the position.  In the case of the NBA and the NFL, the required experience is one year of college basketball and two years of college football, respectively.  This is the requirement to hold the job of NFL or NBA player.  For all intents and purposes, playing football or basketball in college is their entry-level position.

Similarly, the NHL and MLB have a different entry-level position: the minor leagues.  When a player is drafted from high school or college, nearly every player starts at the minor league level.  Depending on their amateur experience (that's high school and college play, for those of you from Palm Beach) they may start at any minor league level and may be promoted at whatever speed their ability warrants.  My point?  Each of these four organizations has decided a certain set of qualifications for any person who wants to be employed by MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL. It is their decision by which the members of those have agreed to abide.

My recommendation that MLB employs a salary cap for the sake of featuring the best 30-team product as they compete with movies, amusement parks, the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, etc. for the entertainment dollar of consumers. Is it anti-capitalist?  No, as long as it is done without government interference.  As long as it is a decision that the 30 teams make on their own, they can restrict their own competition as they please.  Same goes for experience requirements, whether it be at the minor league or college levels.

Bottom line:  Private entities can set their own boundaries for competition, whether they be financial, experience based, equipment based, or boundaries of their field of play.  Provided the decision is made by the private organization, there is nothing anti-capitalist about it.