We learned last night that Justin Morneau, a longtime favorite among Minnesota Twins fans, is being traded to Pittsburgh. Although, like most members of the team, he isn't actually from Minnesota, he’s been a talented, visible member the team for eleven years — plenty long enough to feel like he represented us in some meaningful sense. But in our system of major league sports, the players are always, in the end, only hired guns that never really belong anywhere in particular. If the departure of a great guy and fan-favourite like Morneau isn’t proof of that, then I don’t know what it is.

It was a couple of years ago that it dawned on me that our “local” major league sports teams really do not represent their states or cities in any meaningful sense. For example, almost none of the Twins or the Vikings or the Timberwolves or the Wild are from Minnesota. The players were imported from elsewhere by a corporate franchise that was assigned to this area by the league. Our teams aren’t a representation of Minnesotan sports talent; they’re a representation of how much money and hiring talent our particular sports franchises have.

Most sports fans are fine with that arrangement. But imagine if we ran the Olympics that way, and each country’s team was mostly filled with people from outside that country. It would be silly — a lot sillier than it is now, at least — to derive any national pride from the athletes wearing your country’s uniform. This is one of the biggest reasons I enjoy watching the Olympics: it’s one of the few remaining venues where the players actually represent the best native talent in their region.

But professional sports are not beyond repair in this regard. I propose a new rule in all leagues that in order to play for a major-league sports team, you either have to have been born in or graduated from high school in that state.

Such a rule would probably transform professional team sports in this country. I’m guessing the biggest opposition would come from the players: under this arrangement, salaries would plummet because players would have few to no options as to who they could play for. Some might say less talent would be attracted to major-league sports in this scenario, but the history of baseball (for example) supports the idea that great stars would still emerge without million-dollar contracts. And perhaps we would see an end to the ridiculous spectacle of multimillionaires going on strike, which from a PR standpoint has done real damage to professional sports.

I suppose that the born-or-graduated rule would mean that Oklahoma, Ohio and Indiana would win the Super Bowl most years; but the point is that at least those victories would actually mean something for the people in those states. And the likelihood that Boston and Minnesota would be winning all the hockey games isn’t exactly a downside in my book either.

I floated this idea on Facebook last winter, and the idea was met with a variety of criticisms.

  • “Plenty of people have jobs in states they were neither raised in or graduated from, in all professions.” True, but those jobs aren’t billed as representing a particular area in a competition. The MLB/NFL/NHL/NBA situation right now is like if the USA hired all Canadians and Russians to fill the roster on our hockey team in the Olympics.
  • “If each team could only pull from their state, than states like California with over 35 million people would have a much better chance at getting good players than states like Minnesota who have only 5 million people.” Yes, that’s how it works in the Olympics as well: the biggest countries win most of the medals. Is that system not fair enough for you?
  • “Awarding of number one draft picks would be impossible if they had to come from their individual states.” Yes, the current draft system would be scrapped.
  • “What about people who come from a state without a major-league franchise?” Again, I take my cue from the Olympic model. You can’t just play for any country you want, so if your country doesn’t field a team in a particular sport, you’re out of luck. But on the other hand, there are practically no barriers to entry: any country that can get a team together, and qualify, can play. So ideally we would find ways to lower the barriers to entry for new teams.
  • “Sports players need those high salaries because their careers are so short compared with other professions, and/or because they ought to be compensated for the high likelihood of injury.” There’s three things I’d say to that. First I’d reiterate that on the whole, each of these sports attracted a healthy amount of talent and public interest before there were millions of dollars on the table for players. Second, I assume the players’ union wouldn’t simply evaporate, and that players would almost certainly campaign for some form of compensation to mitigate loss of earnings due to injuries. Third, in cases (such as NFL-style football) where not only career-ending but life-threatening injuries are relatively common, we need to recognize that as a huge, separate problem with the potential to end the sport altogether — keeping salaries high is not a real solution to that kind of problem.

Joel (Author) ·

I still believe that this is an unworkable premise for Major League sports. MLB requires a roster of 25 players on a team, but according to this site, which looks accurate, there are only 17 active players in the league who were born in Minnesota.

I suppose there are probably a handful of players who were lucky to have parents who moved here and they ended up graduating high school at that time, but that data is not enumerated online as far as I can tell.

It just seems to me that the conclusion of this plan is that only the most populated states would be able to host a MLB team and that the Minnesota Twins franchise would be forced to relocate elsewhere.

Brent Metzler ·

Jerry Seinfeld pointed out the silly aspect of rooting for sports teams which have no hard connection to their own players. “We’re rooting for clothes!”

(Via episode #111 of the 99% Invisible podcast.)

Joel Dueck (Author) ·