The Wages Of Their Virtue

… All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings. 
King Lear 
Act V, iii

Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret.
Catch-22 
(1961)

 

“Take the cover off it next time” South African golfer Rory Sabbatini was saying about my player’s poorly-struck—and short—tee shot, in one of the few sentences he uttered that morning without swearing. Our journey around Tiburon, where we were for the pro-am portion of the Shark Shootout, was not merely a round of golf. It was a journey into the mind of Rory Sabbatini, and our jolly lark—not entirely unlike Marlow’s whimsical journey to see Kurtz—was accompanied by an outpouring of profanity like the drumbeat of rain on a tin roof. Which  sounds boring, but while swearing in and of itself is dull, Sabattini is anything but. Not only does he stand as a living challenge to the contemporary notion that golf is best played by beta-blocking androids, but he also demonstrates just what  Jaime Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, might have in common with Edward Snowden, filcher of classified information.

First though the classic opening gambit of the defense: smearing the client. Sabbatini is, after all, the very antithesis of the bland, cookie-cutter pro athlete. He’s been called the jerk of the PGA Tour, and for reason: the list of his offenses against consensus standards is, by the measure of pro golf, lengthy. At Riviera once, for instance, he berated a 16 year-old volunteer—for marking his drive with a pop can. Another time, he got into an “altercation” with Sean O’Hair for something (nobody would say what) on course. And that isn’t even to describe the blowup with Ben Crane several years ago. Even on our day with him, he complained on reaching the driving range that they’d spelled his name wrong: they had, but even so it was hard not to dislike the tone of Rory’s voice when he mentioned it.

By this time, of course, you will be thinking some version of “here we go, another narcissistic athlete,” and perhaps you would be right. The standard story that we have about athletes is that they are mollycoddled to a degree nearly unfathomable to other people: easy courses at college being the classic example, though if some stories are true that is far from the depths to which some schools will go. And it hardly stops there: there’s much to suggest that there’s very little that can’t be forgiven of a star athlete, even horrifying crimes. That’s not to suggest Sabbatini is guilty of any thing like that, but it is to say that the standards of behavior for athletes are a great deal laxer than they are for other people.

The question is, why is that? A related question, if it is not the same question, is, why do these people make so much money? And the answer to both is the same, an answer whose obviousness can only be delivered by way of an obscure quotation from long ago: it’s because of the ability of professional sports, as Leonard Koppett put it in the New York Times in 1976, “to generate money.” There’s a lot of money in sports, nearly all of which is generated solely by the skills of the players. As the generators of wealth, then, it seems right that athletes should get some proportion of it.

Now, just what that proportion is can vary by era: Koppett observes that while in 1929 players were getting around 35 percent of major league baseball’s revenue, by 1950 that had fallen to about 22 percent. These days, according to a piece in Grantland about the NHL lockout a few years ago, players in the major sports (baseball, basketball, football and, more distantly, hockey) get about 5o percent of each league’s revenue—the lockouts of recent years have mostly been about rolling back the gains of the previous decades by some percentage points. The history of sports, in other words, is largely a matter of bickering about that percentage; lately the players have largely been winning that argument. It’s the age-old argument between capital and labor: without the players, there aren’t any sports, but without the stadiums, the leagues, the television contracts and so on the players don’t have anywhere to exhibit their skills.

At least in the case of sports, a fifty-fifty split seems pretty fair: the skills athletes have are more or less demonstrable using both advanced statistical measures and the evidence displayed directly under the microscope of millions of eyeballs during a season. It’s such a successful argument, in fact, that it has apparently been adopted by realms where the contribution of (what might seem strange in this context to call) labor is not nearly so transparent to the overall success of the enterprise: the matter of the rising salaries of corporate leaders, or what Harvard magazine calls “the pay problem.”

According to Fortune, in 2006, when Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts held hearings on the matter of the salaries of American CEOs, a compensation consultant named Fred Cook “stepped forward to defend his clients.” As defenses go it turned out to be singularly ineffective. What Cook claimed was that, although some (outrageous!) methodologies generated a ratio of CEO salaries to the pay of workers as about 400 to one, his own, correct (and much more conservative) measure found that ratio, for the year 2004, only to be … (wait for it) … about 187 to one. To say that is a less-than rousing cover for CEO pay is perhaps like noting the Titanic still hasn’t made it to dock.

In any case, regardless of how that ratio is found, what nobody argues about is that it used to be a lot less: “In 1965,” James Surowiecki of the New Yorker in October of this year, “C.E.O.s at big companies earned, on average, about twenty times as much as their typical employee.” Surowiecki cites a study by the Economic Policy Institute that found that, between 1978 and 2011, executive compensation “rose eight hundred and seventy-six per cent.” Not only that, but as Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana, professors at the Harvard Business School, noted in 2010 in Harvard magazine, “What cannot be disputed is that American CEOs make more money than CEOs in other countries.” This, at a time when the pay of American workers has more or less arguably been stagnating since about 1973.

Yet that point about American CEO pay being higher than that of other countries’ CEOs raises precisely the connection to athletes’ pay: the authors’ of the Harvard piece—both professors at the Harvard Business School—observe that the difference between that of American CEOs and that of their international counterparts is largely made up of what are known as “incentives,” generally in the form of stocks and options. “The underlying assumption” of American companies when it comes to how they pay their CEOs, they say, is that “executives would work more effectively if their monetary rewards were tied to the results they were achieving”—just as athletes are, more or less, paid with how they perform on the field. And, therefore, since American companies have been among the most successful companies in the world—the Dow Jones Industrial Average, for example, has increased something like ten times its 1980 value—it’s only right that American CEOs should be paid so much.

There is a small problem though. As Lorsch and Khurana further pointed out in Harvard: “very often executives have little or no control over the results they are supposedly being rewarded for achieving.” In other words, you can tell when your shortstop hits a triple—but it’s slightly more difficult to determine if it was your CEO’s doing when sales rose by 3.6 percent in the last quarter. Even in sports, at least team sports—and can business ever really be an individual one?—it’s difficult to tease out the contribution of an individual player to the overall fortunes; that’s one question that the statistical analysis of sport (sabermetrics) has, over the past generation, attempted to solve … but even if one can get some kind of approximation it’s never absolutely definitive.

And if you aren’t feeling as detached as Lorsch and Khurana you might have something stronger to say about this system. A report for the Institute for Policy Studies, for example, denounced American CEO pay as “a pay system that encourages high-risk behavior and lawbreaking at the expense of taxpayers and investors.” Because CEOs are rewarded for jacking up the stock price, goes this line of argument, they aren’t as concerned as they ought to be about long-term sustainability—just as, say, athletes are sometimes accused of putting their own stats ahead of the team’s winning percentage.

Maybe so or maybe not—it does demonstrate what Edward Snowden has in common with, say, with Mr. Dimon (who got $23 million in 2011, when his company was put on notice that it would be prosecuted for violating securities laws.) What the man some have called a traitor has in common with pillars of American society like the CEOs of large American companies is, precisely, the logic used by his defenders—and theirs. Here, for instance, is the columnist John Cassidy at the New Yorker arguing that the former defense contractor Snowden is “a hero.” “In revealing the colossal scale of the U.S. government’s eavesdropping on Americans and other people around the world,” Cassidy writes, Snowden “has performed a great public service that more than outweighs any breach of trust he may have committed.”  The value of the service Snowden has rendered overshadows anything else. It’s a justification which isn’t remarkably far from the notion that we can overlook bad behavior from our athletes, or celebrities generally, because of the value they bring us—or that CEOs should be extravagantly paid because of the value they add to their companies.

It’s a point worth making, anyway, if you feel that tensions aren’t quite high enough at any holiday parties you might attend this season. Tell them Rory Sabbatini says hello.

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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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