The Justice Leagues

Distributive justice is a branch of societal ethics related to whether an allocation of goods and wealth can be considered fair to society and its constituents.  Three major theories proposed to answer this question are John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness, Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory, and Michael Walzer’s Complex Equality.  Justice as Fairness centers on the idea that inequalities need to be arranged so that they are open to everyone and of the greatest benefit to the lowest members of society.  Entitlement Theory states that people cannot be deprived of goods that they have earned fairly, whereas Complex Equality focuses on the idea that holding power in one area should not be capable of affecting one holding power in another.

Due to the vague nature and complexity of distributive justice with the goals of obtaining fairness and equality, it is difficult to give concrete examples as to how Rawls, Nozick, or Walzer would view a certain mechanism that attempted to rectify inequalities.  In particular, government policies, such as welfare or affirmative action, are difficult to easily assess due to the multitudes of factors involved in both the initial distribution and the results.  With that rationale, I present today’s sports leagues as an appropriate case for analysis of distributive justice, particularly at the team level.

Sports leagues and teams present a suitable option for evaluation due to several factors.  First, due to the closed nature of leagues (with few exceptions, teams cannot join randomly); it is of benefit to the leagues and their sport to have some sense of equality built-in to their system.  Also, teams compete in two main ways: on the field athletically and on the balance sheet financially.  Leagues have attempted to create equality on the playing field through controlling the acquisition of players.  On the balance sheet, teams’ revenues have been simplified generally into TV rights, merchandising, and stadium revenues.  However, due to the financial incentives in mutual cooperation, television rights fees and a substantial amount of merchandising is distributed at the league level, not the team level.  These two forms of competition have caused for leagues to implement policies in order to account for the acquisition of players and how revenues are distributed to teams in a given league.


There are two main models for teams acquiring players and both incorporate two main factors: initial acquisition and how to acquire veterans (players with a few years of experience at the professional level).  The first model is the American model, which involves drafts for initial acquisition of players, along with free agency and trades for the movement of veterans. The four major sports leagues (NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA) all have different, but similar style drafts.  The NHL and MLB allow prospects directly out of high school to be drafted, while the NBA and NFL have instituted age restrictions (1 year and 3 years removed from high school respectively).  MLB and the NFL have decided the fairest way to distribute players initially is that the worst teams get first pick, which complies with Walzer’s idea of separate spheres of influence.  The NBA and MLB have a two-tiered system for their entry draft that coincides with the thinking of Rawls.  First, teams that do not qualify for the playoffs are entered into a weighted lottery with random selection based on their record.  Then, teams who did qualify are assigned slots based on their performance in the playoffs.  I believe Rawls would believe that this is a system that people would adhere to in the “original position” as it gives the most flexibility of results depending upon where you are in the distribution.

The other model is the European football model, which typically involves the signing of young players to club-owned development academies for initial player acquisition while using a loan/transfer system for veteran players.  A loan in this system allows a player to temporarily play for another club than the one they are contracted to.  A transfer, in this system, is a form of trade where a club can sign a player under contract with another club, but then has to negotiate a fee with that club in which they give up their rights to that player.  The European football model of player acquisition seems to align with Nozick’s entitlement theory.  Nozick would prefer that the free market set the system, so teams who are willing to pay the most will acquire the top players.  By having a transfer system, European football essentially ensures that players are always for sale to the highest bidder.


Professional sports leagues have dealt with the division of league revenues in three main ways: salary caps, luxury taxes, and other revenue distributions (mainly TV and merchandising).  Salary caps and luxury taxes are both implemented in order to ensure competitive balance among top and bottom revenue teams by limiting the amount of money teams can spend on player salaries.  Salary caps limit the team payroll amount (typically relative to league revenues), while a salary tax requires teams to pay the an increased rate over a certain payroll amount set by the league.  Walzer, in particular, would agree that salary caps and luxury taxes are appropriate actions for maintaining competitive equality.  Since teams are competing both on the field and economically, he would argue that teams with higher revenues should not be able to then influence that power directly into a competitive advantage on the field.

Source: Business Insider

With the exorbitant rights fees that television producers are willing to pay for exclusive TV rights, the method leagues choose in order to divvy up these revenues has become increasingly important. In professional leagues, teams typically split a certain percentage of the fees evenly with bonuses based on TV appearances.  This model would seem to appease Rawls and Nozick as it would satisfy both an original position idea and a reward for success.  Walzer would likely disagree with the provision of bonuses based on TV appearances, as it would help teams who are already successful on the field to become more successful financially.  However, the amount of money involved has recently led to a series of debates about what system would be the most fair: particularly in European football and American college football.

In the past few years, major college football has actually provided quite the case study into the idea of distributive justice with TV rights.  While it is hard to analyze college football in other aspects of distributive justice (player acquisition, revenues) due to a host of factors not present in professional sports, including school size, tradition, and the gap in athletic department revenues among others; lately there has been a major shift in the dynamics of college football due to different views on TV rights (and the money involved).  Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1984 ruled against the NCAA’s control of TV rights, TV rights reverted to individual schools and conferences.  Conferences, such as the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference (SEC), have adopted Rawls-like equal-revenue splits on conference-wide TV networks in order to ensure equality and a sense of trust among their constituents.  While these TV networks are for Tier III TV rights, which are less popular games, they allow for all teams in the conference to ensure their games are televised.  The Big XII has instituted more of a Nozick approach, allowing constituents to negotiate their own deals, which has given Texas a substantial advantage due to their ability to secure a new partnership with ESPN for The Longhorn Network for $300 million over 20 years.  Walzer would have a major problem with this setup as the increased funds are likely to give Texas a competitive advantage on the field as well due to increased budgets  and exposure for recruiting of new players over the other Big XII teams.


The theory behind distributive justice is quite abstract, so finding a viable example can help one understand the ideas within the theories a little easier.  For that reason, the distributive policies incorporated by sports teams and leagues help lend some insight on how they could be applied due to their goal of equality and fairness.  This can be more helpful than trying to assess a public policy issue in which they are multitudes of different input factors to go with multitudes of ultimate goals


Nozick, Robert. Property, Profit, and Justice.: BasicBooks. 203-09. Print. Rpt. of “The Entitlement Theory” from Anarchy, State, and Utopia. 1974.

Rawls, John. Justice: A Reader. 203-26. Print. Rpt. of A Theory of Justice.

Walzer, Michael. Property, Profit, and Justice.: BasicBooks. 210-27. Print. Rpt. of “Complex Equality” from Spheres & Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. 1983.



This entry was posted in Blogging, Cases (Real World), Equality, Ethics, Social Science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Justice Leagues

  1. shubho roy says:

    The leagues have a competing interest not found in society. They need the games to be exciting with possibility of surprises and nail-biting endings. How does this apply to society? Are we saying that in society a successful person should face similar uncertainty as an unsuccessful person. Leagues are not good examples of distributive justice because there is someone outside the league who’s considerations have to be taken into account. In society there is no external observer whose interests need to be considered.

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