08 February 2008

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.



At 08 February, 2008 11:46, Anonymous charlton heston said...

Now that you're infusing morality into the equation; why would you reward the sinful gambling industry and its related temptations by boosting player's salaries? Temptation will always be there regardless of what the player makes. Just ask Pete Rose.

Too many years I endured low wage work. Eventually I got fed up and did something about it. Nobody is forcing these players to remain in the league. Many Americans supplement their income with another job; why are these players above doing the same?

Other players have determined that foreign leagues may pay more and decide to make better on their own. It’s getting old in constantly being gagged with emotionalism based pleas for more money as if that always solves problems vice taking the tougher road through education and proper parenting that inspires kids to possess rugged individualism and a code of conduct giving them a leg up in avoiding certain temptation.

At 08 February, 2008 11:59, Blogger D said...

Chuck, you damned dirty ape, you...

I think what I'm arguing is a free market model. You say "temptation will always be there regardless of what the player makes." This is true, but also false. Pete Rose never threw a game. We know the same can't be said for the Black Sox or, perhaps, for Tim Donaghy.

Right now, MLS has three things going for it in terms of avoiding tampering for match fixing.
1) Strong deterring disciplinary measures.
2) The natural morality of its lower level players.
3) The ability of the lower level players to work multiple jobs, which they do.

But if I were a suit in New York working for MLS, I'd be worried that you make the temptation to throw a game with a big payoff much more attractive with a really low salary than a salary of around 40K. If players are reasonably comfortable with their salary, and developmental players aren't locked in at extremely low salaries with an uncertain future, then I think the risk/reward ratio is pretty good for the MLS side. Right now, I'm not so sure.

In fact, I am not making a moral argument. I write "It is not just a moral issue in paying players better..." The argument I am making is an economic one, based on protecting your investment. I don't think a moral argument carries much weight during a CBA negotiation, but perhaps an argument about protecting your league does.

At 08 February, 2008 12:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that factors in here is that because of the thinness of MLS benches the MLS "developmental" player really plays and plays in important games, including playoff games. The ability to throw a game is there. And for motive, when people are underpaid they can tend become less than charitable to their employers. It is embarassing that developmental players in MLS make less in a year than a summer lifeguard at the pool. Agree with Chuck that just because they can doesn't mean they should but agree with D that raising the base salary at least above the poverty level (literally) would have good impacts all around. $9000 more a player-- basically a million and change to rectify this whole thing.

At 08 February, 2008 13:29, Anonymous Jeremy said...

The league should fire Donovan and spread his salary amongst the developmental players. Not only would we be able to retain more actual talent, but the quality of MLS and US Soccer would improve dramatically if the prima-donna never touched the field again.

At 08 February, 2008 22:22, Anonymous J said...

I'm sorry, but this discussion makes no sense at all. Where is the evidence that there is any significant betting on MLS matches? Why would anyone bet $400,000 on a MLS match and hence be tempted to pay off a player for $150,000.

Gambling in the United States follows popular interest. Only when soccer becomes a mainstream sport will significant betting follow. At that point, MLS players will be making far more than $16,000 a year.

At 10 February, 2008 20:59, Blogger David said...


Great post. I think that the low salaries that MLS are paying its players are a disgrace. Andy Dorman made less than $100,000 in 4 seasons in New England.

The low salaries drives the best players overseas and the players left behind are open to temptation from outside sources.

At 11 February, 2008 10:48, Blogger D said...

J: Great question, and I actually hope to have an answer for you on that in a follow-up I'm working on.


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