Adam Smith was not known for his fondness for the performing arts. By contrast, John Maynard Keynes was the de facto arts minister in Britain during World War II. He kept ballet and theatre alive when it was most vulnerable, sometimes out of his own pocket.
Nonetheless, in The Wealth of Nations Smith makes acute comments on the pay of opera singers and the like. The text could as justly apply to today’s athletes:
There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompense, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner, must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour, and expense of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence. The exorbitant rewards of players, opera-singers, opera-dancers, &c. are founded upon those two principles; the rarity and beauty of the talents, and the discredit of employing them in this manner. It seems absurd at first sight that we should despise their persons, and yet reward their talents with the most profuse liberality. While we do the one, however, we must of necessity do the other. Should the public opinion or prejudice ever alter with regard to such occupations, their pecuniary recompense would quickly diminish. More people possess them in great perfection, who disdain to make this use of them; and many more are capable of acquiring them, if any thing could be made honorably by them. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations [1776/1789] [E. Cannan, ed.], (University of Chicago Press, 1976), Bk. I, Chap. V, p. 119.
At the start of yet another football season, the chances ‘…public opinion or prejudice ever [will] alter with regard to such occupations’ so that ‘their pecuniary recompense would quickly diminish’ seem passingly slight.
Venerable classical orchestras, as in Philadelphia, are teetering on the edge of extinction. Horse racing on the flat, a major sport into the 1960s, rarely rates a Sports Center report. Harness racing has all but disappeared. And, gone with them, their stars and their journeymen, with the saddest stories belonging to jockeys too old or beaten up to ride.
I find truth in Smith’s description of the performance arts ‘… as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompense, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner, must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour, and expense of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence.’
Consider the prejudice against hiring ‘dumb jocks’, the same people the employers have cheered from the stands. (Leave aside life-time effects of head injuries and blown out knees….) The pay of NFL players seems not so huge in this context.
Now consider ‘student athletes’, the unpaid fodder for college ‘programs’, virtually all of whom will miss out on professional paydays. Whether paid in tattoos, muscle cars from boosters, or cash for their Bowl rings or other mementoes, they are just taking pay for what they worked so hard to learn, for what so many others could do as well if they chose to, and for what has very, very brief value.
Adam Smith didn’t nod very often, and certainly not on pay for entertainers.