Another year, another lesson in shaming by the MLS Players’ Union. It’s no secret that MLS salaries are lower than other pro sports in North American and pale in comparison to top European leagues. The bigger secret is how MLS salaries reflect the sad reality of the US workforce at large: for the last two decades, we’ve all worked harder and earned less. More importantly, the athlete/European comparisons to arguably overpaid prima donnas in financially unsustainable leagues will not win over very few hearts. They are also not analytically sound. Thus, I looked at the MLS player salaries under a different barometer: how the US federal government measures poverty. The results for MLS players are not very pretty.
First, a note on “poverty.” The Federal Government issues annual guidelines for who it considers living in poverty. For a single person, if you earn $11,490 or less than you are poor. For a family of two, the number is $15,510. For a family of three, the number is $19,530. There’s several problems with the government measurement and those stats. As the Columbia University School of Public Health has pointed out, the rubrics fail miserably to account for inflation and other cost-of-living increases. Cost-of-living also varies greatly by region. If you live in McAllen, Texas, you just may pay less in rent than, say, Los Angeles, California. Columbia has concluded that an individual needs to earn double the Federal guidelines to afford the basics of living.
At first glance, even players making the $31,125 minimum are above that “double-the-feds” threshold. However, don’t just pop the bubbly yet. Many players have spouses. Quite a few have kids. If you are married with one kid (and your spouse is in school or not working), then, uh oh, you are pretty darn poor. To illustrate this point, I did a hypothetical “Should I Apply” online form for Chicago Fire goalie Alec Kann at the Texas Benefits Website. I assumed he was single and had no children. He earns pre-Taxes $31,125 per year, about $2,927 per month. The results were pretty positive, in a sense. There’s a decent chance Mr. Kann could qualify for Medicaid and even food stamps! Congrats!
Conservatives will say: but Alex Kann is a reserve goalie! He’s at the very bottom of the totem pole! True, but in what just society should a lower-level employee live in poverty? He’s also not alone. Emilio Orozco, Julio Morales, and Brendan King of the Chicago Fire also earn the same salary. No employer should be able to look an employee in the eye and say “You deserve to live in poverty.” Especially not the first day on the job.
Of course, there is a fundamental irony to the Union releasing players’ salaries to embarrass MLS but those salaries being the result of a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by that same Union. The knee-jerk reaction is that the Union got outfoxed in the latest round of labor negotiations. After all, professional sports are one of the few unions left in the largely right-to-work US that can strike or threaten to strike with a serious impact. Leverage is on their side more so than, say, the dude at Verizon who tries to get you to upgrade to an iPhone 5 every time go to a store because your MMS doesn’t work.
However, the last round of negotiations were pretty fierce. The backdrop of a general recession but improving MLS revenues created a pretty toxic dynamic. The Union actually threatened to strike, and only a Federal Mediator could bring the two sides together. Also, the Union focused more on “freedom of movement” for players than dollars & cents. It’s an understandable position given the onerous restrictions on transfers and also the recessionomics of the time. Still, it definitely impacted the lowest run of the Union ladder.
We can’t just blame the players, either. Sports and athlete-employees, like many other employment situations, suffer from the “collective individual delusion problem.” Basically, each individual worker views their first job or current job as a stepping stone to a higher paying one later on in life. Wrong. Your first salary is the most important. This is the free market myth that a “labor market” can move freely and bargain for a just wage as individuals. Unions and union reps exist to correct this myth.
In conclusion, about 4-5 players per MLS team work for pay at the margins of poverty. Instead of painting a nice banner for your next MLS game, save the five bucks and pass it along to somebody on the bench. They probably need the gas money.
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