Parecon and Society: Athletics

By this point, talking about parecon’s implications for athletics and athletes ought to be relatively easy. It is barely different than the case in other domains such as science, art, etc. There is, however, one interesting new angle to address, the issue of competition per se.

First, similarly to other realms of human endeavor, parecon ensures that those who do athletic activity as part of their balanced work responsibilities will be remunerated for their effort and sacrifice and have balanced job complexes and self managing work situations.

What the empowerment ratio, so to speak, of playing tennis in one locale after another as a part of one’s work, or golf, or running, or playing chess, or soccer, etc., might turn out to be, only future assessments will reveal. But various pareconish sports industries will have internally balanced job complexes (among the playing, training, coaching, traveling, maintaining the fields, maintaining the stadium’s, transporting, cleaning, medically maintaining, and so on and so forth) and then also between their broad industry and the rest of the economy.

Likewise the inputs and outputs of athletic industries will be cooperatively negotiated in the planning process by on the one hand workers councils of industries providing bats and balls, food, bandages, bikes, and other inputs, and on the other hand by consumer’s councils expressing their preferences for athletic consumption.

It might be interesting to ask how a sports team, say in baseball, basketball, or soccer, will be redefined, including on the field coaching, off field coaching, distribution of tasks, player motives and mentalities, etc., but just as delving deeply into such matters for symphony orchestras, or movie actors and crews, or writers/directors, or for that matter, truck drivers, cooks, or metal workers is beyond our capacity here, so too for the athletes and for others associated with delivering athletic performances.

We can say a bit more about the issue of athletic remuneration, however, and it is interestingly revealing to do so. And after that, we can address a much broader question that may be troubling some readers which is would athletics still even exist as a part of the economy, as something that is remunerated and consumed? Would we have bicycle riding as an enjoyable hobby and pastime, but not the Tour de France and other races with remuneration? Would people play chess with friends, but not in tournaments and for a world championship, as part of their income earning work? Would there be hobbyist leagues for hockey and cricket, football and soccer, tennis and golf, chess and go, bowling and racing (on foot, in cars, or on horseback), maintained by people earning for their labor, but with no people doing such sports activity itself as part of their social responsibility to work and thereby contribute to the overall social product, and thus no people earning income for the playing, training, and practicing, per se?

Assuming for now the continued existence of people earning income for their sports playing, remuneration will be for effort and sacrifice, of course. But what does that mean in this context?

Consider a marathon race. Current remuneration in sum total for the runners might be, say two million dollars. If so, the first place winner may get, say, four hundred thousand, second place two hundred and fifty thousand, third place one hundred thousand, fourth place fifty thousand, and the remaining two hundred thousand may go in steadily diminishing installments to the next thirty or forty or perhaps even fifty or sixty finishers, with another thousand or more finishers each earning nothing for their endeavors. If we consider, instead, the whole baseball industry, golf industry, soccer industry, track and field, bowling, car racising, and chess industry instead, each is rather similar over the course of a year with participants going from tremendous earnings at the top performance levels and athletic talent, down to near zero or even below zero earnings (many athletes pay their own fees, transport, etc. and earn back less than that amount) for a huge majority of others. What changes about this picture in a parecon?

Consider the marathon, again. In a parecon remuneration isn’t for the position you finish at, but is for the effort and sacrifice you expend in socially valued labor. If society values your sport and its products enough to warrant its being a part of the socially planned economy, then as a participant (whether your main activity is athletic, organizational, maintenance, medical, or whatever) you will get remunerated for the duration of your socially valued work, for the intensity of you efforts, and for your work’s onerousness above or below the social average, but not for output per se – such as where you finish in a race.

Indeed, suppose you are, among your other responsibilities, a runner. Suppose you come in first, or fifth, or one hundred and fiftieth (just how slow a runner will be deemed fast enough to warrant being considered a producer of a valued output is a matter that will be determined by sports councils in their hiring practices and by participatory planning in establishing what is sought be audiences, just as with baseball, hockey, soccer, etc.). What difference will your finishing position make to your income? The answer is none, unless you are doing better or worse in the race due to extra duration or intensity of work, as compared to due to natural talent, since it is the former only that is remunerated.

In other words, if you are a natural born jack rabbit competing in a marathon, you can’t waltz across the finish line first, expending little effort in the race and in preparations for it, and expect to get high remuneration. And even if you did exert disproportionately compared to the social average, and if you did work overtime and exceptionally hard to get ready, etc., the extra income you would thereby earn would be proportionate to your effort and duration, and not to your results, and therefore certainly not humongous, as now. And the same holds for coming in thirty eighth instead of thirty ninth or fiftieth, or third or first, etc.

And this remunerative approach is, of course, not only morally sound – which is to say one shouldn’t be remunerated extra much less in huge volume for natural born talent or even for the output of training as compared to the difficulty and intensity and duration of training – but is also economically sound, which is to say it has the appropriate incentive effects.

What a runner needs as an incentive to run faster is not inordinate reward for natural born talent, about which the runner can do nothing and which actually provides incentive only to win even if at a much slower pace than one is capable of, but remuneration for the effort that goes into running faster or lower income for not expending full effort.

This is all well and good, and is also consistent with parecon more broadly, of course, and so by this time this kind of logic is hopefully not at all surprising. But, the question remains, will there be athletics as an economic industry – not just as a hobby – in a good economy at all?

Why not? Why won’t future citizens of a classless economy value viewing runners, bikers, kickers, shooters, etc. etc. just as we do now, as exemplars of human performance in their respective fields? In that respect, how is it different than people wanting to see the work of the best painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, singers, composers, performers, and so on?

If we will want to have symphonies or other performances, movies, shows, etc. in a good economy, with remuneration for their production and performance, why not want athletic events to watch, aspire to, admire, enjoy, as well, including remuneration for their production and performance?

Many critics of capitalism will still have their doubts about this, I suspect. Leftists dislike sports for its macho dynamics, its racial biases, its violence, it commercialism, and its class inequalities. But all this is gone, presumably, in a good society and economy. Nonetheless, many leftists will still wonder, I suspect, about competition being an imposed conflict among people, and a detriment.

They will say that while an orchestra aspires to the highest quality it can attain, and while we admire performances in accord with quality and we likewise enjoy and respect some compositions more than others, and likewise admire and enjoy some paintings, poetry, and novels more than others, even with this differential valuation, each product stands unto itself and there is no intrinsic necessity of winners and losers. But with sports, this critic might add, there often is an intrinsic necessity and even centrality of winning and losing, which, they would say, differentiates sports and should in a good society make sports unworthy of elevation to an industry with remuneration for workers.

First, it is correct that a great many sports intrinsically involve competition. We can conceive of competition-free alternatives, but they are not the same thing. In the late 1960s I used to play with friends something we called socialist basketball. You did score and defend in the playing of the game. But the score wasn’t germane and needn’t even be kept. A very good offensive player, defended by a not so good defender, would try to play in such a way as to bring out the defender’s best possible defensive effort making the defensive player play his or her best. The offensive expert has the difficult challenge of elevating the defender’s effort rather than simply scoring easily over and over.

Similarly, a really good defensive player covering a not so great offensive player would not shut the player down over and over, easily, but would, instead, play with just the right tenacity and intrusiveness to spur the offensive player to play his or her best as well. Playing this way was fun and challenging, but it wasn’t basketball of the sort people enjoy when watching the NBA, or college, or high school competitive games. And of course there are many sports in which there is barely even a way to imagine a non competitive variant – say chess or the hundred yard dash or a marathon, or car racing, or the pentathlon, etc.

But what about the competition, urges the critic? We can’t want to reward and elevate that, can we?

Well, it is true that a central virtue of parecon is that participatory planning removes competition from economic allocation. Likewise remuneration is not competitive. There is no zero sum in which if I win you lose in participatory economic remuneration. And, yes, this is deemed a great virtue not out of a priori rejection of something called competition, but for what it accomplishes vis a vis allowing the economy to propel rather than violate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management.

So is it competition per se that is a problem? If we don’t increase income for the winner of a contest for winning and we don’t reduce income for the loser for losing, and if winning and losing have no bearing on workplace influence and self management and don’t lead to benefits in job definition and character, why is competition problematic?

Parecon doesn’t deny different capacities in performers and producers. On the contrary, parecon has standards and admires excellence, etc. You can’t get remunerated in a parecon for work that isn’t socially valued. I may want to be the shortstop on a baseball industry team, say the Yankees, but Derek Jeter is so much better that the public would not value and indeed would be horrified by my work at that position. My play is simply not good enough to be worthy of employment as a shortstop. There is therefore a competition for any balanced job complex that includes shortstopping for the Yankees. Indeed, there is also competition in this same sense for other jobs.

Suppose, for example, that I want to be a physicist, an airplane pilot, or that I want to do heavy labor, or perform on Cello for my most rewarding work. So do other people, no doubt way more people than society needs. And there is competition, therefore, for the honor of being able to be socially remunerated for each type of work. One must fulfill the social standards. If one can’t do the tasks well enough, one can partake, but as a hobby not for remuneration.

Thus, a parecon is not without competition. But in the many parecon competitions, it isn’t winning or losing that yields a remuneration level, a level of say over work, conditions of work, etc. What the competition does, instead, is to generate, reveal, and utilize competence. The competition thus yields something we all benefit from and does so without threatening values we all hold dear.

Can athletic competition be similarly positive in its implications, without negative side effects?

Suppose you play a game of chess with an opponent. Does the quality of the experience depend on whether you win or lose? It certainly might. It could be that you get more pleasure out of winning easily, with no real challenge, even having played mundanely and inattentively due to your being a much better player than your opponent, than you get out of just barely losing a finely played and challenging game, due to your opponent being a bit better than you but with you playing at your absolute best. In this case, it is winning and losing that impacts your mood, not quality of your play.

On the other hand, can we imagine a society in which you get more pleasure out of losing the match but playing really well, having engaged in a really challenging and exciting struggle, than out of winning easily? Isn’t this what we tell our kids, in fact, all the time – that it’s how you play the game, not if you win or lose, that matters, and that this is true even though you must try to win, not lose, for there to be a game and quality play at all?

The effect of having a parecon in the economy on sports in society would certainly be profound. It would not mean teams and individuals don’t try to win. It would mean, however, that their incomes would not be pegged to winning or losing. We would want to see quality, as now, but we would not reward it per se. Would athletes and audiences celebrate winners, or only those that manifest their capacities fully, or both? Would fans of a team get more pleasure out of its winning easily while playing poorly, or out of it losing a close and hard fought struggle but playing well?

In a good economy, would chess as something people can do for an income disappear because there must be a winner and a loser, or would it persist, including with a world champion, because we value quality of play and perseverance and wish to observe, study, and enjoy talent and endurance and effort applied strenuously in this area, like so many other areas…but without win-based loss-based reward or penalty?

What about golf, soccer, basketball? For that matter, would boxing disappear for being too violent a competition, or would it remain as an amazing struggle at the most basic level? What would become of car racing, or horse racing, or marathons? How about archery, or the javelin, or pole vaulting?

We can’t know for certain the answers to these questions about the future any more than we can know for certain about diverse other industries what outputs they will have in the future. Nor is there any reason to be agitated about this vagueness of possible prognosis. A vision for an economy or for any other part of life isn’t about figuring out what choices future workers and consumers or other citizens will make. It is about figuring out what institutional relations will free workers and consumers and citizens more generally to make choices they prefer while furthering values they hold dear.

We can confidently assert that participatory economics will make equitable the way athletes are remunerated, will balance their jobs, and will no doubt also impact the way athletes are viewed and their influence in society. We can also assert that parecon will likely change the way people regard and enjoy competitions.

Now we have ….facts…but in a parecon.

Now we have ….facts…but in a parecon.


The precise details of the future content and texture of athletics, both for remuneration and in leisure time, all as with the precise details of the future content and texture of music, art, literature, architecture, transportation, education, dining, fashion, or anything else that will exist, or will be prevalent, or will be unusual, or will even be ruled out in a future society, are for future citizens to work out in their own free and formidable fashion. What an advocate of parecon urges is that the economic context in which people exercise their preferences have as defining features workers and consumers councils, self managed decision making, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning.

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