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Where equality works in the US

31 January 2014

The quasi-socialist system of American football benefits everyone, argues Joe Ware


Catching the idea: Mike Wallace (right) of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Sam Shields of the Green Bay Packers, at a Super Bowl game

Catching the idea: Mike Wallace (right) of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Sam Shields of the Green Bay Packers, at a Super Bowl game

THIS coming Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday, the day of the year when the United States unites in front of the TV to eat junk food and watch its armoured countrymen duel it out on the gridiron. Yet this emblem of the American Dream, which attracts more viewers than attend church services at Christmas, is not the result of free-market capitalism, but relies on socialism for its success.

The US is well known for its right-of-centre politics and its love of unshackled free-market economics. In some quarters, the notion abounds that success is a combination of God's favour and personal effort, and that there is no requirement to share this with anyone - certainly not the pathetic scroungers at the bottom of the pile, who are too lazy or unskilled to flourish.

Taking money from the rich to support these feckless layabouts, in the form of taxation and welfare, will only encourage them to be even worse. Tough love is what they need; natural selection will force the best out of them.

IN THE UK, while those sentiments are increasingly present, there has generally been a more understanding view of social welfare and the benefits system. Taxes are higher than across the Atlantic and, like God's grace to sinners, we have the NHS to ensure medical care for even the "undeserving". But when you examine the philosophical structures of the countries' two national sports, the situation is reversed.

Although known as "America's Game", the success of the National Football League (NFL) has been built on the model of a socialist state. It has a salary cap, which limits each team's spending; a revenue-sharing system - effectively a tax - which transfers money from the high-earning franchises to the poorer teams; and the NFL Draft.

Unlike British football, where each club has its own academy system to develop young players, in the US, this job is left to the universities. The Draft is the three-day jamboree at which each team takes it in turns to select the best of the upcoming graduates.

It is like a huge version of the Hogwarts Sorting Hat. But, in contrast to the libertarian economics of the Tea Party movement, it is not the best team that is rewarded with the first pick in the draft, but the worst.

So the team with the worst win/loss record is awarded the top pick. Next is the second-most feeble, until right at the end, after all the other 31 teams have snapped up the best of the talent, it is the turn of the previous year's Super Bowl champions.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

WHAT this rather socialist approach does is to create parity. And parity leads to hope. Fans of teams in the doldrums know that the silver lining of a few poor seasons will be a crop of good young players, who could transform their team into winners again. This is how the New Orleans Saints could pick second in the 2006 Draft, and yet win the Super Bowl two years later.

The players do not get any say in the matter. Unlike in Britain, where the best players can choose to join already established powerhouses, in the US, superstars have to join the teams that are most in need of their services.

The salary cap ensures that the Dallas Cowboys' owner, the billionaire Jerry Jones, cannot simply buy his way to success like Chelsea's Roman Abramovich. And revenue from the NFL's multi-billion-dollar TV rights is split equally between the big-market teams, such as the New York Giants, and the minnow Green Bay Packers from Green Bay, Wisconsin (population: 104,000).

The outcome of this socialist structure is one of the most competitive and equal sports leagues in the world. In contrast, since its formation in 1992, the unregulated spending and player acquisition of the English Premier League has produced only five winners, and this includes the one-win wonders Blackburn Rovers, back in 1995. Over the same period, there have been 13 different winners of the Super Bowl.

Although NFL bosses seem to have realised that equality is the best environment for the game to flourish - and is good for business - this does not seem to penetrate the minds of many of the football-loving American Right.

THE book The Spirit Level (Penguin, 2009), by the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, suggests, using evidence from 30 years of research, that more unequal societies have a much higher likelihood of social ills - from increased mental-health problems and teenage pregnancies to crime rates, obesity, and lower life-expectancy. Even in rich and developed countries, these problems persist where inequality is high.

One solution that humans have devised to create societal parity is taxation. Like in the NFL, those who are fortunate enough to be better off give more, so that those in need can be supported. Yet the proposal this week of a five-per-cent tax hike for those earning more than £150,000 a year has been met with fury in some quarters. Like manna from heaven, which festered when stockpiled, surely there comes a time when we have enough?

Many of the same critics cry that the poor will never be motivated to succeed while there is a welfare safety-net. Tough love is what they need. Returning to our sporting analogy, that tough love does not work so well for free-falling football clubs such as Coventry City, Sheffield United, or Portsmouth. Sometimes, people need a helping hand, not spite from the more fortunate.

Among other things, Christianity is about relationships: the relationship of the Creator and the created, and between people made in the image of God. We try to model God's love through our communities. Paying tax, whether as an individual or a company, is a fundamental part of being part of a healthy society. It is an expression of loving our neighbour. That is why it is such a scandal when greedy firms and individuals shirk their duty and dodge the taxes that they owe.

Paying tax is a privilege, and our contributions to society's coffers make our world a better place. As the authors of The Spirit Level, and the Super Bowl fans attest, we do better when we are equal.

Joe Ware is a church and campaigns journalist at Christian Aid.

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