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Capitalism and the Cleveland Browns

Stakeholders in the NFL cannot lose—at least not under the league’s current structure. Owners split money from the league’s massive TV deals and other media revenue streams. That stream is so dependable, so huge, and so guaranteed that it’s done what large, intractable pools of cash have done since the invention of markets. It has altered and distorted the very thing that created it, and broken the basic exchange between consumer and seller that made the NFL successful in the first place…

That approach towards maximizing your dollar with the bare minimum of effort became more sophisticated over time. As the league’s revenues boomed, they became something less like points of civic pride run as passion projects by the locally wealthy, and something more like attractive investment properties with a promising rate of return for billionaires — particularly those billionaires who entered the NFL as strangers to the league, but as intimate familiars of a corporate culture dependent on squeezing every profitable dollar, and trimming every wasteful one from the budget.

For instance: The legend of [Washington Redskins owner] Dan Snyder tells a story of someone who was “passionate” about the Washington franchise on a personal level. It sometimes leaves out his ruthless economizing of the franchise, a focus on the bottom line interrupted periodically by splashing free agent signings to keep fans semi-interested in the team. That he keeps them in the worst stadium in the league, charges for everything short of oxygen, and rolls out a consistently mediocre product doesn’t matter: His great gift as an NFL owner, after nearly 20 years, has turned out to be a deep understanding of knowing exactly how little actual quality he could slip into the product without breaking the customer’s dependence completely.

This is, I think, a good example of why some younger Christians are questioning capitalism right now. In the standard conservative Christian political pedagogy, competition is the most important factor in mitigating the greed and avarice of wealthy corporations. But the stagnation of the NFL illustrates the problem with this idea. What if corporations can still get filthy rich without having to compete? What if the rules are actually drawn up so that a bad product, bad services, and bad faith don’t cost you anything?

I mean, in pro football, “competition” is literally the core value, the chief good. But that hasn’t stopped franchises like the Redskins, Browns, Jaguars, and Rams (sniff) from trotting out bad products year after year, while their owners still profit enormously. These teams don’t just become bad. They stay bad, year after year, then decade after decade. And why not? If someone told you you could make $50 million by being excellent at your job, $45 million by being OK, and $40 million by being lousy, how motivated are you going to be to be consistently excellent?

The NFL is a case study in the skepticism toward capitalism. Capitalism’s conceit is that the way to create a quality and equitable market is to let consumers reward excellence and shun non-excellence. But in the NFL, the guys making the rules (eg, Roger Goodell) are answerable only to the guys looking to make the money (the owners). The rules favor the owners, not the consumers. And that dynamic persists year in, year out, because the money is locked up in a closed system. Is it really that far fetched to think this is basically how it all works in America, not just pro sports?

By Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.