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How Do We Address Issues of Systemic Injustice?

A popular aphorism suggests that our checkbook reveals what we value most. As a tool for social analysis, this discloses much about what our society values.
Recently, Major League Baseball’s Anaheim Angels renewed the contract of their star left fielder, Mike Trout, and gave him a $28,000 raise.

In 2013, Trout will make $510,000 – $20,000 over the league minimum – but as a key asset for his team, Trout and his agent find this unacceptable.

While his salary vis-à-vis other players may seem meager, the minimum MLB salary of $490,000 is more than 10 times the median U.S. salary for 2012.

By contrast, Joe Flacco – quarterback of the National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens – received a new contract that he said respected his achievements.

The salary that made Flacco feel respected? $120.6 million over six years.

I understand Flacco’s statements in the context of NFL salaries, but his comments reveal a profound disconnect from the majority of U.S. workers who will earn between $1 million and $4 million for a lifetime of labor.

Shifting to college sports, my alma mater, Baylor University, is building a $250 million on-campus football stadium and re-signed our football coach, Art Briles, to a $2.3 million per year contract. For context, 34 coaches have larger salaries than Briles.

This is where things get murky and uncomfortable for me. I spent years watching an anemic Baylor football program, am excited about the advances the program has made, and plan to watch many games in the new stadium.

But I am also troubled because what I’ve described at Baylor is reflective of the money spent on coaches and facilities across college football.

Granted, an oft-quoted saying applicable here is “the worker is worthy of his or her wages” (Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7). When Jesus sends out his disciples to share the good news of God’s reign, he says this to assure them that if they carry out their mission faithfully, they can expect to be supported by those who accept their message and mission.

In the same way, players can (and should) expect to be supported (paid) by their fans who indicate their support through purchasing tickets to games.

Yet, I cannot help but wonder why there is such a profound disparity between the salaries of athletes, coaches and team owners, and those of the average U.S. employee?

I’m not asking about the historical process by which the sports industry evolved into its current salary structure. There are many factors, and various studies on sports’ salaries are available.

In fact, my unsettledness is not about the sports industry, at least not directly, since similar trends can be found in other industries as well.

I’m seeking to reflect on a larger question with which I struggle on a regular basis: Why does our socioeconomic system result in the pay of some professions being far above and others being far below the national average?

Training and education, free market supply and demand, technological advances, a global economy and myriad other factors create a Gordian knot, of sorts, around this question that seems impossible to unravel.

Two traditions surround Alexander the Great untying the knot. The popular tradition says he cut it with a sword. The other says he removed it from the pole, exposing the ends and allowing him to unravel the knot.

A recent M.I.T. study of the U.S. labor market suggests that determining causes and suggesting solutions to this question will require a frustratingly slow but more beneficial unraveling of the knot.

Thus, we must reject the tradition that solves complex problems with a sword. In socioeconomics, this approach often plays class warfare by lambasting the wealthy and lauding the poor – as though the wealthy are inherently unrighteous and the poor are inherently virtuous.

This is as unhelpful and inaccurate as those who claim that people are poor because they are lazy and people are rich because they are industrious.

I hold no animosity toward wealthy athletes, nor do I think poorly of anyone simply because they are wealthy.

My question derives from a desire to understand why some professions are valued (paid) more highly than others.

It derives from my frustration with the seemingly inevitable socioeconomic disparities within capitalism that I neither fully understand nor know how to address.

It derives from frustration that professional sport leagues have established what, to me, are excessive minimum wage levels that do not seem to hurt the profits of the NFL or its players and teams, yet anytime someone proposes a minimum wage that equals a living wage, opposition quickly arises over its purported detrimental affects on the economy.

Far too often, we address problems by identifying a scapegoat on which to heap our frustrations over national, systemic problems, which are not the fault of any one person or group.

Nevertheless, we are not exempted from questioning whether our systems and processes are just. And, if we discover that they are not, seek to change the system for the betterment of all involved.

These matters are never easy to address, as it often involves critique that seems personal to those deeply imbedded in the logic and processes of systemic injustice.

This dynamic is found in the gospels where Jesus calls us to love all people, even our enemies (Matthew 5, Luke 6), but critiques those individuals and groups involved in systems of injustice (Matthew 23, Luke 11).

This suggests we must continually seek to identify and overturn systemic injustice. But, when addressing individuals or groups perpetuating these systems, we must remember that redemption, healing and reconciliation of all people are our goals.

We must recall Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus: “Our struggle is not against people, but against systems and structures of injustice that war against what is good and right and just” (Ephesians 6:12).

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com.