Americans may like to keep politics and sports separate, but over the past year reality has repeatedly intruded on the country’s most popular pastime.
On Christmas Day, the movie "Concussion" hit theaters, amplifying the national conversation over sometimes fatal brain injuries suffered by professional football players and efforts by the National Football League to hide the truth from the public. A few months earlier, the media had a field day with a decision by the usually obscure National Labor Relations Board, which ruled against players at Northwestern University seeking to form a union. Summing up the bad news for collegiate athletes, one headline read “NCAA ‘Dictatorship’ Wins Again as Union Gets Busted.”
The fanfare around "Concussion" and the Northwestern labor ruling was a reminder that American sports, both at the professional and amateur levels, is far more than entertainment for the masses—it’s a high-stakes business, at the very least, and sometimes a life-and-death affair.
If all this is unsettling your impending Super Bowl high, take heart: sports can be a force for social progress. And we’re not just talking about Jackie Robinson and racial integration, which, seminal as it was, is now a nearly 70-year-old achievement.
A case in point is the middle-class-friendly economic impact of the Super Bowl. At a time when rampant income inequality has forced its way onto the national stage, the Super Bowl reminds us that big business and principles of fairness can share the playing field.
Consider this: from the players and the referees to the footballs and the beer to the stadium and the people who work there, the Super Bowl is a highly unionized affair. The labor-friendly nature of our biggest annual sports spectacle extends to the network that broadcasts the game to 100 million-plus fans, and even to many of the products we consume at home.
What difference does it make whether the ref or concessions worker or alcohol brewer has a union contract? Let’s start with wages: the pay of unionized workers is 27% higher than those who are not organized. Then there’s health care: while nearly 80% of unionized workers have employer-provided health benefits, less than 50% of nonunion workers get medical benefits from their employers. Unionized workers do better even after they’ve retired—they are 60% more likely to have pensions than their nonunion counterparts.
Of course, the heavily unionized workforce behind the Super Bowl is an anomaly. Only 11.1% of America's workers are represented by a union, with private-sector unionization at a paltry 6.7%. Numerous studies have found that the 30-year decline in unionization is one of the driving forces behind the rise of inequality and the erosion of the middle class.
But the Super Bowl’s middle-class boosting economic model is also highly instructive. There is no commercial sporting event that is more profit-driven than the Super Bowl, which last year was responsible for more than $12 billion in consumer spending. Unlike so much of the U.S. economy, however, the Super Bowl lifts all boats—with none of the unusual complaints that the decent wages enjoyed by the game’s vast and diverse workforce come at the expense of jobs or are bad for business.
What’s going on here? Cynics would argue that the Super Bowl’s economic pie is so big that the usual market principles don’t apply.
A more accurate analysis is that unions have succeeded in organizing almost all NFL-related economic activity, leading to broadly shared prosperity among the thousands of workers who are part of this micro-universe. The same pattern can be found in other corners of the American economy, such as the hospitality sector in such cities as New York and San Francisco, where strong business performance goes hand in hand with good pay and benefits.
If you’re keeping score this Sunday, remember that no matter who takes home the Super Bowl trophy, the American middle class will come out ahead.