Wednesday’s Book Review: “Leveling the Playing Field”

downloadLeveling the Playing Field: How the Law Can Make Sports Better for Fans. By Paul C. Weiler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Many of the major issues of modern professional sports revolve around issues of the law. Harvard University’s Henry J. Friendly professor of law Paul C. Weiler believes this firmly and Leveling the Playing Field is his attempt to explain this central issue of sports business. Much of this terrain has been pursued in other works, but Weiler’s perspective is interesting.

Weiler takes the reader through the looking glass world of the sports business, exploring the nature of free agency, the various revenue streams of the major sports franchises, the long history of the shakedown for new sports complexes paid for with public money, the problems of steroids and other methods of cheating, and television and other revenues generated through sports activities. It is a familiar story, and Weiler tells it relatively well. His approach is balanced and his tone is evenhanded, even when the subject does not deserve it.

His solution to the problems of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League boil down to one piece of national legislation. “The only way to avoid a regular replay of the experience of the 1990s is to have Congress pass a law that bars redistribution of middle-American taxpayer dollars into the pockets of wealthy Americans like George Steinbrenner.” He adds, “I hope my readers now understand that as fans we would be better off if our favorite sports had the combination of a salary tax and a stadium cap” (p. 345).

That might help, although I am opposed to any restraint on the ability of players—the labor force—to receive whatever income they are able to negotiate for their services since they are fundamentally the stars of the show. But I only wish it were that simple! I very much question all the problems of the sports business could be cured in this way, and I must add that the devil would be in the details of any such congressional action and its ramifications might be strikingly different from what was intended. Witness the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act and how it simply changed the rules of the game; it did not appreciably alter the game itself. Additionally, the ability to pass legislation of this type in early twenty-first century America appears virtually nil.

While I found this book quite interesting and worthy of consideration, I was annoyed by the relative lack of academic rigor in the discussion. At no point, for instance, did Weiler offer detailed thoughts on the nature of the legislation that he believes is necessary. Additionally, the book is completely without scholarly apparatus, not even a selected bibliography, and I find this unacceptable in a serious work.

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