I freely concede that teachers are far more valuable to society than pro-football players. Education is necessary; major league sports teams are not. Why, then, do jocks get paid so much more than teachers?
This question is a latter-day version of what was known a couple of centuries ago as “the paradox of value”—a paradox that economists didn’t resolve until the 1870s. The paradox was that an ounce of gold sold for a much higher price than a loaf of bread, even though the former was an optional ornamentation and the latter sustained life itself. Clearly, bread is more valuable. It is also, however, far more common than gold. The relative scarcity of gold accounts for its higher price. Today, the relative scarcity of men able to compete at the NFL level is why they get paid so much more than teachers, the latter of whom are far more abundant.
Many say that pro athletes don’t deserve to make so much money. I disagree. That is not to say that I regard athletes as more important than teachers. I don’t. Nor is it to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the athlete-as-idol phenomenon in our culture. (The decline and fall of Rome was accompanied by a pagan obsession with musculature and physical contests.) It’s not that I don’t think tickets to NFL games are already too high. For my taste, they are, but that is irrelevant, because enough of my fellow citizens freely choose to pay those stiff prices and pay for those gaudy NFL salaries. Since nobody forces anybody to pay those ticket prices, who can object?
Here are the main reasons why I have more sympathy for the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) than the Wisconsin teachers union (WEAC) in their respective labor disputes:
The NFL is highly competitive. Those who don’t perform at a very high level are quickly replaced. Superior performance is rewarded and underachievers are pink-slipped. The NFL is a meritocracy, and that commands respect. The teachers union, by contrast, is anticompetitive. The NEA and its affiliates have squandered much public goodwill by routinely protecting inferior teachers and resisting all efforts to reward exceptional performance.