Sports drafts mix glamour, exploitation
Saturday, May 03, 2008 7:00 AM
Spring is in the air, and sports fans eagerly devour news about the recent National Football League draft and the upcoming National Basketball Association player lottery. College students wave their large, foam-rubber "We're No. 1" hands while rooting for the local star athlete - but do they recognize the exploitative aspects of the draft?
The draft system is a case of billionaires exploiting millionaires. Athletes chosen in the first round are financially set for life, but does that fact justify a rigged market?
Because of the draft, instead of selling their services to the highest bidders, star players are only able to negotiate with one team. The leagues are violating players' rights by precluding them from choosing their employer.
In any other context, the public would be outraged at such rigging of a labor market for young professionals. Students would protest a reverse-order draft of certified public accountants by the Big Four accounting firms.
"Scrooge & Marley is proud to select Uriah Heep as the first pick in the 2008 accounting draft. Boy, can he balance the books, and he is the master of double-entry accounting."
Their older law school classmates would never acquiesce to being drafted, although law firms could be rated according to their "win-loss" records. Fans could wonder whether law firm Perry Mason & Sons will trade down in the draft for a lawyer to be named later. Scouting combines could time fledging lawyers as they file complaints.
Professional sports leagues defend drafts of amateur players in two ways, publicly and privately. The public aspect is well known. Because of the "last shall be first" nature of the draft, team owners claim that drafts promote competitive balance by awarding earlier picks to weaker teams.
If Kansas State University basketball star Michael Beasley is drafted by a last-place team in a small city, the odds are he'll eventually migrate either by trade or free agency to a team in a larger city where he will generate more revenue. Ask fans of the perennially inept Los Angeles Clippers or New Orleans Saints whether the reverse-order draft promotes competitive balance.
The owners' private reason for instituting the draft was reduced cutthroat bidding for young talent. The owners have also discovered that glamorous drafts generate favorable publicity.
Baseball owners recoiled in shock when collegiate star Richard Reichardt received a reported $200,000 signing bonus in 1964. The horror of that event spurred baseball owners to overcome their scruples about violating youngsters' civil liberties by instituting a reverse-order draft in 1965.
Oakland A's owner Charles O. Finley, hardly a defender of player rights, candidly admitted to Congress, "Owners adopted a free agent draft to eliminate the excessive bonus bidding, thereby solving its own problem at the expense of the prospective player."
It's exploitation, even if cloaked with jewelry, limousines and entourages.
David Surdam is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa.
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