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Sports vs. Social Justice

Does Derek Jeter really deserve to earn millions of dollars?

A. Barton Hinkle
July 15, 2011

Last weekend Derek Jeter made baseball history when he became only the 28th MLB player to reach 3,000 hits. He's the only player to do it wearing the Yankees uniform.

For diehard Yankees fans, Jeter may be worth all the money on Earth. But many less ardent enthusiasts probably wonder whether even someone as good as Jeter should be raking in his kind of dough: $51 million for the current three-year contract, plus millions more in endorsement money. Jeter recently paid $7 million to have a house built—a 31,000-square-foot house. That's about the size of a typical Barnes & Noble.

We are talking here about a grown man who earns his living by hitting a little white ball thrown at him by another grown man. Jeter didn't cure cancer. He doesn't even teach high school biology. The average teacher makes something like three-tenths of 1 percent of Jeter's base salary. Is there any possible way to justify his being paid that much?

Actually, yes. There are a couple of ways.

Patrick Rishe, who blogs on the business of sports for Forbes magazine, provides one by asking if the Yankees organization is getting its money's worth.

He finds that the Yankees generated about $3.85 billion from 1996 to 2010. Divide that by the team's 1,460 wins and you get about $2.638 million per win. Jeter's wins-above-replacement data suggest he personally added 70 wins to the Yankees record during that same period. (In other words, if the team had replaced Jeter with some random schmo, then it would have lost 70 more games than it did.)

Rishe calculates that, at $2.638 million per win, Jeter alone made about $185 million for the organization during the past 15 years. His aggregate salary was $205 million. So he earned 90 percent of his keep in wins alone. His marquee value to the franchise might make up the rest.

Rishe concludes by noting that Jeter's latest contract might overestimate his performance value. We'll see. For now it appears Jeter is worth pretty much what his bosses pay him.

But what about the rest of us? Jeter's millions might be a good deal for the Yankees, but don't they stray from what is often called "social justice"? What does it say about a society that pays a teacher thousands and a shortstop millions?

At this point it helps to consider Wilt Chamberlain, who was once to basketball what Jeter is to baseball today. In what has become known as the Wilt Chamberlain Hypothetical, the late philosopher Robert Nozick invites us to consider whether Chamberlain is entitled to the fruits of his game-playing labor.

Suppose, Nozick said, that there is a society in which wealth has been distributed ideally, however you want to define "ideal." (In this case, let's say everyone has exactly the same amount of money.) Now suppose Chamberlain signs a contract that entitles him to 25 cents out of every admission ticket sale. In the course of a season, 1 million people attend the games to watch him play. At season's end Chamberlain ends up $250,000 richer than anyone else.

Is this unjust? If so, why?

Since the wealth was fairly distributed before the season, Nozick says, and there is nothing unjust about people freely choosing to spend their money on entertainment, then no injustice has occurred, so how can we say Chamberlain's additional resources are unjust?

Of course in the real world, the initial distribution of wealth might not be just. Still, people are not forced to pay Chamberlain or Jeter to play games with balls, are they? If they freely choose to do so, then how can we complain about the results?

Some more considerations: Unlike Jeter, whose exploits entertain millions, the typical schoolteacher has an audience of a couple hundred at most. If Jeter gets just 10 cents apiece from 10 million fans, each of whom would pay 10 bucks for the privilege of watching him play, then Jeter might be getting the short end of the deal, even though he earns $1 million. But a teacher earning $50,000 who teaches 100 children in the course of a year is, in effect, charging each of them 500 bucks. Do they find the instruction worth the money? Since they have to attend school and the teacher's salary is set by someone else, it's hard to say.

What's more, just about anyone can teach, in the same sense that just about anyone can play baseball. But most people won't pay even a buck to watch a next-door neighbor swing a bat. Very few individuals can play ball like Jeter can, and probably very few teachers teach as well as Jeter plays. So maybe we should compare the average teacher salary with the average salary in a minor-league club. (A triple-A rookie makes about $26,000.) Or, for that matter, with the average newspaper scribbler. How much does Glenn Beck make again?

A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.



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