Let’s Play Footbolshevik!

Andres Martinez is the editorial page editor of The Times. His weekly column begins today.

Growing up in Mexico, I would watch the National Football League with my friends. The game, we thought, distilled the good, the bad and the ugly of the colossus to the north -- the disciplined harnessing of raw power, those cheerleaders rooting on los Vaqueros de Dallas, the loopy fans going shirtless in the cold or waving biblical citations, the Barry Manilow halftime show at the Super Bowl.

What a country, that neighbor of ours.

I was an Acereros fan. I loved it that this gritty team from the down-and-out steel town couldn’t seem to afford insignias on both sides of its helmets, let alone cheerleaders. I also loved it that they won four Super Bowls in six years. For a boy whose team is on a roll, there is a clear lesson: Life can be easy.

I was wrong, of course. Not so much about life -- though the Steelers haven’t won since -- as in believing that pro football is the embodiment of all things American. The league, especially today, propagates a radically un-American -- subversive, even -- social and economic model.


The NFL’s billionaire owners have created a socialist nirvana, a league that famously worships parity and takes from each team according to its ability and gives to each according to its need. Parity (the NFL shies away from using the e-word, “equality”) is promoted in every conceivable way. Teams all get the same cut of the TV money, regardless of whether they play in a major market like New York or tiny Jacksonville, home to Sunday’s Super Bowl XXXIX.

The worst teams in a season get to pick the best college players in the next draft, and the most successful teams get penalized with a tougher schedule the following season. Worst of all, the NFL has a salary cap -- a maximum amount that can be spent on a team’s entire payroll -- that forces all competitors to make do with the same resources. This ensures that successful teams whose players become stars will bleed talent in subsequent years, thus reinforcing parity and making it harder for dominant dynasties to emerge like my childhood Steelers, who played in the days before the salary cap.

In the short run, fans might like the fact that their team has as much of a chance as anyone else’s of winning the Super Bowl. But over time, the game has suffered from the erosion of storied rivalries featuring enduring dynasties. Presumably to the delight of the NFL’s central planners, a team with eight wins and eight losses crept into the playoffs this season. Someday soon, all teams could end up with such a .500 record, and all share the Vince Lombardi trophy. This is in stark contrast not only to baseball, a world of haves and have-nots, but also to soccer leagues in an ostensibly more socialistic Europe, where teams like Real Madrid and Manchester United use their wealth to amass more and more talent.

The NFL’s organizational structure is one a Swedish social worker might adore, but it’s astonishing that red-state Republican fans put up with it. These are people who will tell you that sports offer important lessons for business and life generally, but who rail against progressive taxation, welfare and other schemes designed to promote parity in our society. Are they so distracted by the hitting on the field that they miss the dangerous message the league is peddling?

Imagine the catastrophic implications for American capitalism if the NFL model was widely emulated. Business competitors would all have to make do with the same resources, share revenue evenly and lend a remedial hand to those that struggle. Mediocrity would rule the day.

Anyone appalled by all this un-American equality should root for the appropriately named Patriots in Sunday’s Super Bowl. The New England team, despite all the NFL’s efforts to put an end to consistent excellence, is on the verge of becoming a bona fide dynasty, having made it to three Super Bowls in four years, and winning the first two. The Patriots don’t have an inherently superior talent pool on the roster -- that’s not allowed anymore -- but do have Bill Belichik as their coach. A mad football scientist, Belichik squeezes more out of his rationed resources by doing such heretical things as having his star receiver play defense and making a linebacker catch the ball on occasion.

Until the NFL’s central planners wise up and realize they are going to have to start assigning coaches to teams to achieve full equality, we should all cheer on Belichik, a graduate of Phillips Andover, President Bush’s prep school. He is waging a subversive war against the league’s subversive Bolshevism.