message to people in our society that professional baseball players and other athletes make more than soldiers in combat. This message must be fundamentally questioned, given the disproportionate degree of significance we give to the careers of athletes. Big name athletes are touted as role models, while ordinary soldiers are largely ignored, or at best given a few words in print if they distinguish themselves heroically in combat. The discrepancy between the utility of certain occupations such as soldiers and nurses, versus occupations such as professional baseball players and entertainers, and the disproportionate salaries made by the latter have caused many to question the fairness of how salaries are allocated within our society. Many of the arguments cited in favor of professional athletes' salaries could easily apply to other high-risk professions. This paper argues in favor of reducing baseball players' salaries through more aggressive salary caps as a way of restoring the significance of athletes to their rightful place in American culture. All too often it is assumed that those who make the most money are the best kinds of people, which is far from the case.
Questioning the salaries of professional ballplayers
In the wake of the recent revelation that so many professional baseball players used steroids during the 1990s, there has been a great deal of cultural outcry about the significance of 'the steroid era' in baseball. Some claim that it does not matter: fans like to see powerful hitters, and the athletes knew the risks they were taking. Athletes continue to take major risks with doping, often eluding detection for many years while they attempt to engineer themselves into perfect specimens on the playing field.
However, given the degree to which athletes are held up as role models to children, this state of affairs is extremely troubling. Professional baseball players take major risks with their health, do not 'play by the rules,' and receive million dollar salaries for playing a childhood game. This makes their lives seem very attractive to young people. Even for children who do not have the athletic talent to aspire to become professional athletes, they often look up to baseball players as an example of what hard work and dedication can yield. There is the allure of fame and fortune -- and even athletic scholarships to prestigious colleges for athletes do not make it 'big.'
The argument in favor of the large salaries commanded by professional baseball players that are often cited are as follows: athletes have short 'shelf lives' in terms of their careers. They need to make money while they are still young and at the peak of their prowess. Although a thirty-seven-year-old man would hardly be considered 'elderly' in most segments of society, the Mets were praised when they traded knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey to the Toronto Blue Jays recently, despite Dickey's winning pitching and the fact he won the Cy Young Award that year, a notable bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Mets. The justification? Dickey was simply too old to be relied upon given the size of his salary, and it was assumed he had 'peaked' as a player.
Other arguments in favor of the exorbitant salaries commanded by professional baseball players are the fact that players take tremendous risks to play the game. Obviously, the risks which steroid users took were to some extent brought upon themselves through their negative, illegal behaviors. However, even top athletes who do not use steroids can injure themselves during the normal activities of playing. The high risk of sustaining a career-ending injury for someone who has done nothing but prepare for a baseball career since he was a teenage is very real.
All this might make us sympathize with professional baseball players and their demands for large salaries, even players who use performance enhancing drugs, given the extent to which they are pressured to perform and earn money very quickly. However, it is worth noting that ordinary soldiers face the same challenges for far less pay. An ordinary soldier has a short 'shelf life' for the most part, given the physical demands of his or her profession. Unlike a professional baseball player, a soldier has no 'off season' but can be deployed at any time. Although soldiers may receive training for careers outside of the military, many clearly struggle with transferring their military skills to civilian life. According to one soldier: "I went out into the job market, and I'm trying to convey to them that, hey, I'm really good at what I do. I'm the tip of the spear at medical care. And they didn't realize that because I lacked the certifications. I could be a medic in the Army, when I get out, it doesn't transfer out. And also, a lot of civilian employers don't understand what it means to be a medic overseas or be a truck driver overseas. They don't realize the qualifications that come along with that" (Donovan 2011). Unlike a professional athlete, this soldier does not have the ability to rely upon considerable savings while he obtains certification to get a job (for which there is no guarantee that he will).
Like professional athletes, every time a soldier heads out into the field to pursue his or her craft, the soldier faces the risk of a potentially career-ending injury. And once again, the soldier lacks the financial resources of the professional athlete to fall back upon. Moreover, professional athletes have agents who represent their interests and can ensure that the athletes get enough time to rehabilitate from any injuries (including overuse injuries), regardless of the needs of the team. In contrast, for soldiers, there is no entity defending their interests, and the needs of their nation and their service unit come first, not their own needs.
The great discrepancy between the salaries of soldiers and the salaries of baseball players, despite the analogies made between the two professions, highlights systemic failures within the capitalist system. Over and over again, particularly in the wake of the failure of the 'big banks' in 2008, people have been asking: why do the investment bankers who destroyed the country's economy still make more than nurses who help heal the sick? Although soldiers are ultimately paid by the taxpayers, their relatively meager compensation relative to other professions sends a message that we do not value their contribution. This is true of all workers -- from nurses to teachers to policemen -- who take risks with their lives and livelihood every day on the job and make comparatively modest salaries.
Capitalism suggests that the market should determine salaries, at least in the case of baseball players. Because baseball players at the professional level are seen as having unique skill sets that can make the difference between winning and losing, they are viewed as irreplaceable to their franchises. "So why do pro-ballplayers get millions? Because, if they're good, they put a lot of people in the seats, they sell a lot of merchandise for the team, and -- perhaps most important in today's sports world -- they jack up advertising rates. Plus, although many of us had dreams as kids of being ballplayers, very few folks can throw or hit a 90 mph fastball" (Walden 2008).
However, as well as playing a good game, we have come to invest certain responsibilities with upholding a public image as an athlete. Athletes are supposed to justify their esteemed place within society because they uphold values such as determination and strength in the face of insurmountable odds. The willingness to take pharmaceutical shortcuts to do so, however, argues against this and, in fact the values supposedly uniquely embodied by athletes could far more easily be said to be embodied by soldiers (or other individuals in high-risk professions…