When it comes to sports teams, I’ve always been cursed with a severe case of monogamy. For example, even though I’ve lived in the Denver area for nearly two decades now, and one of the NFL’s best-run and most successful franchises is just around the corner, I’m stuck rooting for the team of my childhood affections, the indescribably awful Detroit Lions.
And, at a moment when American taxpayers may well be asked to pony up a trillion or so dollars to deal with what economists describe delicately as "market failure," it’s instructive to consider the ownership and management of the Lions.
The Lions were bought by, or perhaps more accurately were bought for, William Clay Ford in 1964. Four and a half million dollars of Ford family money — William Clay is one of Henry Ford’s grandchildren — purchased this particular plaything, which at the time was one of the most successful franchises in the NFL (the team had won the league championship three times in the previous twelve seasons).
Now, in what Lions fans like think of as the 45th Year of our Ford, the team has become the longest-running joke in professional sports.
The NFL is a league in which everything is slanted to produce as much parity as possible, from draft choices, to free agency rules, to, most crucially, revenue. Nearly two-thirds of the league’s billions of dollars of annual income are divided equally between all 32 franchises. (As one NFL owner put it, the league is full of capitalists who vote like socialists).
In short, it’s almost impossible for an NFL team to either lose money or avoid being competitive at least some of the time. William Clay Ford’s Lions have managed to do both.
According to Forbes magazine, the Lions were the only league franchise to actually lose money last year. On the field, the team has won the astonishing total of one playoff game in 44 — soon to be 45 — seasons.
It gets worse. Seven years ago Matt Millen, a former NFL player with literally no other qualification for the job besides a stint as a TV commentator was named the team’s general manager.
Since then the Lions have lost 84 of 115 games, which is almost the worst record over such a stretch in the entire history of the league. Millen has achieved this while piling up a bloated payroll loaded with disastrously unsuccessful and expensive high draft choices — hence the team’s unique money-losing status. Several published reports had Millen finally being fired Wednesday with the team off to yet another 0-3 start.
What does any of this have to do with the present crisis on Wall Street and in Washington?
Consider how "the market" — that purportedly all-seeing and beneficent entity that in recent years has been treated as if it were some sort of god — has "disciplined" William Clay Ford for turning one of the league’s better franchises into a perpetual Titanic, searching for next season’s iceberg.
According to Forbes, the Lions are now worth $917 million. This adds up to a nifty 3000-percent appreciation for Ford’s purchase, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
It’s true the NFL makes up a rather unusual little corner of our economy.
Yet every day we learn details about Wall Street compensation packages that make William Clay Ford look like Warren Buffett. For instance, Richard Fuld, who has just captained the nation’s oldest investment bank, Lehmann Brothers, into bankruptcy, has been paid $466 million by the firm since 1993.
A glance at the financial press reveals that cases like Fuld’s are far from unique. Given Wall Street’s mysterious willingness to pay gigantic sums in exchange for spectacular failure, its no wonder American taxpayers are nervous about throwing more money into its rapacious maw.
To paraphrase the late Sen. Everett Dirksen: a trillion here, a trillion there — after awhile, it adds up to real money.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)