A couple of posts ago, I used the phrase “pay to play” in reference to our bought-and-paid-for system of political patronage. This is one of those open secrets we all recognize but gloss over because, frankly, in a capitalist economy, anything that can be monetized and corrupted will be. Those who are thus paid to play enjoy fairly handsome rewards for doing not very much, really. Yet the paradigm is self-reinforcing, much like the voting system, with promises of increased efficiency and effectiveness with greater levels of participation. Nothing of the sort has proven to be true; it’s simply a goad we continue to hear, some believing in the carrot quite earnestly, others holding their noses and ponying up their dollars and votes, and still others so demoralized and disgusted with the entire pointless constellation of lies and obfuscations that refusing to participate feels like the only honest response. (Periodic arguments levied my way that voting is quite important have failed to convince me that my vote matters a whit. Rather, it takes a bizarre sort of doublethink to conclude that casting my ballot is meaningful. Of late, I’ve succumbed to sustained harangues and shown up to vote, but my heart’s not in it.) I can’t distinguish so well anymore between true believers and mere manipulators except to observe that the former are more likely to be what few civic-minded voters remain and the latter are obviously candidates and their PR hacks. Journalists? Don’t get me started.

The phrase put me in mind of two other endeavors (beyond politics) where a few professionals enjoy being paid to play: sports and performing arts. Both enjoy heavy subscription among the masses early in life, as student sports and performing groups offer training and experience. The way most of us start out, in fact, we actually pay to play through classes, lessons, training, dues, and memberships that provide access to experts and put us in position to reap rewards later in life. Maybe you attended tennis camp or music camp as a kid, or you paid for a college education (defrayed perhaps by activity scholarships) majoring in athletics or theater. Lots of variations exist, and they’re not limited to youth. As an endurance athlete, I continue to pay entrance fees to race organizers for the opportunity to race on courses with support that would otherwise be unavailable without the budget provided by participants, sponsorship notwithstanding. Chicago’s popular 16-inch softball leagues are pay-to-play sports.

A second phase might be giving it away for free. As with paying to play, pure enjoyment of the endeavor works as a strong motivation and justification. This is probably more common in the community-level performing arts, where participation is just plain fun. And who knows? Exposure might lead to a big break or discovery. It’s also what motivates quite a lot of amateur athletes, especially for sports that have not gone mainstream. Olympic athletes (tertiary events) might fall roughly into this category, especially when their primary incomes are derived elsewhere. A third phase is being paid to play. If the audience or fan base is big enough, the financial rewards and fame can be considerable. However, those who enter the professional ranks don’t always demonstrate such great prowess, especially early on. More than a few blow up and flame out quickly, unable to sustain the spark that launched their careers. There’s also being paid to play but earning well short of a livable wage, which borders on giving it away for free or at least for too little. A final phase is being paid not to play. A mean interpretation of that would be that one is screwing up or blocking others’ opportunities to the point where it becomes worthwhile to pay someone to not show up or to go away. A more charitable interpretation would be that one’s employment contract includes time-off benefits that require continuous payments even when not playing.

As with my post about the differences between the Participation, Achievement, and Championship Models, I’m now content with numerous endeavors to be either pay to play, play for free, or play for too little. Participation makes it worthwhile under any payment regime, the alternative typically being sitting at home on my couch wasting my time in front of the TV. I never made it to the enviable position of being paid to play (full-time, anyway) or paid not to play. Still, as an individual of some attainment and multiple areas of expertise, I admit finding it irksome to observe some truly awful people out there pulling in attention and wealth despite rather feeble efforts or abilities. The meritocracy may not be dead, but it often looks comatose.

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