Promote Integrity - Raise Salaries
We are largely insulated from the darker sides of soccer in the United states. Not for us the ethnic and religous violence that accompanied games in Scotland and England, the racist chanting in Spain, the match fixing and general seedy corruption of Italy. We talk of making the game more like the rest of the world, but we mean that primarily in terms of passion of fans and level of skill. I doubt many of us really think the rest of it could happen here. That could be willful naivete. Consider the story coming out of Houston in the wake of the USA-Mexico match (via AOL Fanhouse) It's entirely possible this is just a random act of violence, but since we don't know, we must at least consider the possibility that this was a situation of people targeting Mexican fans. Yes, there's nothing to say right now that was the motive, but we just don't know. Even if it is not the case, we would be smart to think about some of the problems the rest of the world has with soccer, and how to stop those problems from developing over here.
Which bring us to the low salaries for developmental players. We have seen the specter of match fixing overseas in soccer for some time. There has also been the constant background noise of match fixing in tennis as well. The rise of legal online proposition wagering systems had made it easier to make money off of fixing events in a sports match.
The United States, as much as we might pretend otherwise, is not immune. Forget the Black Sox scandal and Pete Rose, it was within a year that we had an NBA referee admit to betting on games he officiated. The basic premise of any sporting competition that we see is that both sides, on the field, are trying their best to win. Without that assumption, we are not watching sport, we are watching at best a pseudo-reality show. MLS developmental players, typically, are role players. Frequently they play in the back line or defensive midfield. For their trouble, they earn between $18,000 and $30,000 a year. There is the prospect of a better contract in the future, but then again, maybe not. Bobby Boswell thought he might be getting paid, but he's still at a shockingly low salary for Houston. Devon McTavish made $30,000 last year, and saw several starts for United. Jeff Carroll made $12,900 for the year. These are low salaries, which players augment through perfectly legal means.
Still, given the cost of living in this area, it is not hard to see the temptation. A one-time payoff for hundreds of thousands is a temptation that I think most players could ignore, but if you turn the screws tight enough on a player, might they not buckle? If you can't have a keeper on the take, might it not be good enough to have a Center Back make a few bad passes in his own end to set up opposing attackers? And MLS is still not on the sports radar throughout much of the world, or even in this nation. Perhaps no one would notice a set of strange bets on a peer-to-peer gambling system based in Europe? For the player, perhaps now their integrity keeps them away from throwing a game. But add in a sick family member, a worry about that nagging ankle injury, and a brother in serious debt, and you have to see that it could be quite difficult to resist an offer for some big cash and the chance of not being found out.
I do not believe that this is a problem that MLS currently has. But I do believe, given the salary structure, it is a problem MLS is inviting in its future. The economics of the MLS business model have demanded that salaries remain low for many players, but those economics are changing. The damage of a gambling or match fixing scandal in MLS could be profound, and so it is in the interest of the single-entity to remove that temptation as much as possible. Yes, oversight is good, but the best insurance is to make the risk/reward ratio not favorable to any illicit gambling offers. If I am making $12,900 a year, like Jeff Carroll, I don't know if I would have the moral backbone to say no to $150,000, especially if I had a family that could really use that money. If I am making $40,000 a year, that's a different story. I at least make enough to get by on, and perhaps and not in a desperate situation. It may be tough, but it may not seem impossible.
It is not just a moral issue in paying players better, it is an issue that helps ensure MLS's own survival and marketability as a sport. It cuts profit now, but helps insure against a bigger potential loss later on. Call it an insurance down payment.
It's possible others are making this argument, but I haven't seen it. Perhaps I am missing something obvious, or missing where others are making this case. If so, please let me know.
Labels: Major League Soccer