Struggle for power in sports is a 2000-year-old battle

December 5, 1994

ANN ARBOR—Baseball players strike. Owners lock out players. The federal government sends in a mediator. Sports fans feel cheated. Franchise cities are losing money. And vendors are out of work.

All this jockeying for power in the sports arena isn’t anything new, says David Potter, associate professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan. Roman gladiators were subject to salary caps; event promoters to governmental control and taxes. Even politicians and fans got into the fray.

Potter points out that there were technical problems connected with presenting gladiatorial combats to the public. ” Gladiatorial combats were thought to be illustrative of the qualities that made Rome great, and were subsequently regarded as central to celebration of Roman power. They were also very expensive, and consequently comparatively infrequent. ”

Often provincial office holders and municipal magistrates were required to present such combats while holding office. And the state had an interest in ensuring that these elected officials did not go broke offering games. So prices were fixed.

“I suggest that one reason prices were fixed,” Potter said, ” was to restrict competition among provincial aristocrats, and that these restrictions could be lifted, from time to time, as a way for the central government to intervene in local politics; and I suggest that prices were fixed to protect investors. Price-fixing must also be seen as an important mechanism of control where specially favored provincials might be allowed to exceed expenditure limits in order to enhance their standing in the eyes of their neighbors. ”

The promoters and players operated under financial limits established by the Roman Senate, a procedure not always looked upon with favor.

“Some senators complained that discussing the limitations on expenditure for gladiatorial games instead of issues of war and peace diminished the dignity of their order,” Potter said. ” Others argued that it was in paying attention to these matters that the Senate proved its competence to deal with the others. In either case, provincials were reminded that there was a process, and that their political aspirations were subject to the control of a central authority. ”

Expenditures for spectacles were capped as were the prices paid to gladiators, who were divided into three classes according to skill or popularity, much like baseball and hockey farm teams or minor leagues. The number of games was controlled as was the number of gladiators that could participate at any one event.

Some Roman games were staged not by local office holders, but by ” for profit enterprises. ”

“They were sometimes put on by people whose backgrounds excluded them from public office,” Potter said. ” The state clearly did not want to allow such people to be able to compete on an equal scale with the magistrates. ”

Only the most expensive games were contracted for locations populated by rich and important people. Less expensive games featured less skilled gladiators.

But even the poorest gladiators seemed to be paid a staggering wage, nearly three times the average income of a day-laborer. The downside to such salaries was that the money was paid to the official in charge of the troop, or team. These troops were fairly complex organizations, supporting not only gladiators, but their trainers, doctors, and servants as well, giving an image of dealing through a club’s ” front office. ” The promoter got the money and then dolled it out as the law required, with any extra or profit from admission charges going into his own pocket. Sometimes, to up his profit margin, the promoter would construct the arena of cheap wood, and in one instance such a structure collapsed and killed tens of thousands of people.

Gladiatorial events were staged at the funerals of nobles, great public occasions where the family of the deceased gave a gift of a public combat to the people of the community. Even the unveiling of a piece of statuary was sufficient cause for staging a public combat. In 87 B.C. one fellow produced such a combat as a gift to the people who elected him to office.