The Man in the Helmet

helmet-shirtI saw this image cross my Facebook feed this morning. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but it’s probably the first time I’ve actually stopped and thought about it. It reads:

“I think a man with a helmet defending our country should make more money than a man with a helmet defending a football.”

In general, it’s an agreeable enough sentiment. Soldiers should get paid way more for the sacrifices they make. Period. Though, just in the interest of not bankrupting the state, it makes more logistical sense to lower the salary of professional athletes than it does to provide American servicemen and women with multi-million dollar contracts (sorry, folks).

But really I got to thinking about why this is. Why is it that people who play sports professionally typically make so much more money that people who put their lives on the line in far off foreign lands defending the rights and interests of American citizens back home, and can we fix it?

I’d like to begin by stating that I, in no capacity, mean to trivialize the lifestyle of a professional athlete. Many of them spend long months away from home and family putting their physical well-being on the line, in a similar fashion as our soldiers and sailors. In fact, while not nearly as often killed in the line of duty, many professional athletes (most notably football players) can suffer significant long-term bodily harm; anything from severe, chronic joint and muscle pain to brain damage and, some claim, even PTSD. But, they are well compensated for it and there seem to be far fewer homeless former football players on the streets than there are veterans.

The question remains; why is it that we value an athlete’s performance over that of a soldiers? Even taking into account that, in 2013, 70% of professional football players we’re making somewhere in the range of $100,000-$300,000 yearly, rather than the millions brought home by exceptional players; that’s still quite a bit more than the average soldier is likely to send home to his/her family.

The reasons are surprisingly simple; good ol’ fashioned All-American celebrity culture and capitalism. americafyeah-1024x576That is, people like watching sports, they’re entertaining. Advertisers like their advertisements to be seen. Advertising at a sporting event is a great way to get lots of eyes on your advertisement. But advertisers also have to pay to advertise. So, in order to get the most bang for their buck, they want to advertise for high-profile games and good teams; why? Because the eyes want to watch good players.

Knowing this, the team owners pay a lot of money to players that people like to watch in order to keep them around, thereby drawing in advertisers and getting folks to purchase merchandise and such; the profits of which go largely to the league and team owners.

In short, no one (who won’t directly benefit from winning) wants to (overtly) sponsor a war; because war is ugly and nobody wants to watch it. I mean, as awesome as it would be to see a tank dressed up like a race car, it’s just not going to happen.

But this wasn’t always the case.

Back in the day American’s did run an ill-fated experiment with war-time spectating. At the First Battle of Bull Run (aka: Battle of First Manassas, depending on which team you’re rooting for), Union civilians unknown2turned out in droves, with their fancy carriages and picnic baskets, to watch what they expected to be the beginning and end of a very short Confederate rebellion. Over 800 soldiers were killed, and a few civilians were caught in the line of fire, and more than one taken captive by the Confederate army. Needless to say, it was not a trend which caught on and not a practice I endorse reviving. Besides, we fight all our wars on foreign soil these days, and fan turn out for away-games is generally lower than desired. Imagine if it had, though. Imagine a Nike Swoosh right under the American flag on every Marine’s uniform. I digress.

But! There is another, more elegant, and uniquely (Central) American solution to bridge this equity gap.

Beginning in roughly 1,400 BC, various Central American cultures have played a game called Ōllamaliztli; now, and henceforth, called ulama (because it’s way easier to type). But, ulama was more than a game, in some cases it was a proxy for warfare. Indeed, it’s believed that leaders of rival cities would settle regional conflicts with a sporting event rather than all out warfare. That’s not to say there was no bloodshed at all, as the losing team was often sacrificed…. codex_magliabechiano_141_cropped

But the point is; if we want our soldiers to make as much money as our athletes, maybe we should start resolving our conflicts with a ball game rather than throwing bombs at one another.

Can probably do away with the human sacrifice thing, too.