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COLUMN: NHL salaries highlight neoliberalism’s widening wage gap

Hockey salaries spotlight economic disparities in today’s world
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Hockey salaries have escalated since the time of Montreal Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard. (Conrad Poirier, via Wikimedia Commons)

A hockey player has recently signed a (US) $53-million four-year contract with a National Hockey League (NHL) team. It is the highest NHL salary ever to have been negotiated.

As his team is Canadian, it is appropriate to note that his contract amounts to (C) $77.670 million at the current exchange rate.

What does such a salary mean to anyone whose earnings are not in the million dollar range? A hockey fan working full-time at British Columbia’s minimum wage of $16.75 would have to work three months to earn what this hockey player will be paid for the two minutes he may sit in the penalty box in the course of a regular season game.

How can we compare a two-minute pause to three months of work‽

Considering that the hockey player in question is only one member of a team in which million dollar salaries are not exceptional, and that his team is only one among 32 NHL teams, and further that the NHL is just one in a wide range of professional sports organizations, which include football, baseball, tennis, etc. etc., the cumulative salaries and bonuses paid in professional sports is in the multiple billion dollar range. How many billions? I don’t know.

The question should not be whether professional athletes (or entertainers) deserve or earn what their contracts promise to pay. The question should focus on the source of the money.

Where do the billions of dollars paid in professional sports and entertainment come from? A search for answers about the source of all that money leads us to our embrace of the neoliberal ideology in the 1980s, with its policies on trade liberalization, privatization of government enterprises, priority of property rights, deregulation, and reduced marginal tax rates.

Introduced in the West more than 40 years ago, and adopted globally following the demise of the Soviet Union, neoliberalism’s ideology has pushed us into a reality where many people working full-time find themselves on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, struggling to meet their most basic needs for housing and food from life-long earnings falling well short of the annual earnings of those perched on the top rung.

I do not begrudge professional athletes and entertainers their phenomenal earnings, but I empathize with struggling workers and pensioners who may feel uneasy or embarrassed as they line up at a food bank days before their next pay. Neither is personally responsible for today’s economic reality. Anyone under the age of 45 was born into the system adopted by my generation.

One way to appreciate the long-term consequences of neoliberalism’s ideology is to reflect on the salary earned by Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the undisputed king of professional hockey in the 1950s. Richard’s salary for the 1959-60 50-game season was $25,000. Today’s equivalent is $264,535.

British Columbia’s minimum wage in 1965 was $1. A hockey fan working full-time at British Columbia’s minimum wage in 1965 would have had to work 17 days to earn the same amount the Rocket was paid while sitting out a minor penalty.

How 17 days has now grown into three months stands as a symbol for how the cost of housing, the cost of food, the cost of education, the cost of health care, and consumption taxes have mushroomed for many readers of this newspaper.

Stretching 17 days into three months: this is the neoliberal ideology’s proudest achievement.