With college graduation season coming to a close, this year’s seniors are already competing strenuously for undercompensated work to pad their resumes in the hope of cashing in at some unspecified future point. It’s safe to say that not one of the recent graduates I know from my courses, young people who despite the debt they’ve incurred enjoy every advantage that an expensive education can provide, will be turning pro as a boxer. And yet boxing offers a useful perspective on the job market they’re entering.
The boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. tops the annual list of highest-paid athletes recently released by Sports Illustrated, which estimates that he’ll make at least $90 million this year, and possibly a lot more, from just two bouts. Mayweather, who also topped the list last year, is one of the few fighters who figured out how to beat a system that typically exploits them without mercy. Having won his financial independence from promoters and TV networks, he has made it pay off handsomely.
There isn’t another boxer on the Sports Illustrated list of the top 50 high-earning American athletes, which is packed with basketball, football, baseball, and golf stars. There’s a lesson in that. Boxing, a broken-beaked canary in the coal mine of American society, has a long history of telling us, often in the form of cartoonish parody, about the broader nature of work.
Mayweather makes an obscenely large share of all the money made by professional boxers. A handful of other champions make millions, a somewhat larger but still relatively small group make a living, and the rest don’t even break even. Think of the vast majority of professional boxers — oh, say, 99 percent or so — as essentially unpaid interns, putting in the hours and hours of grueling work and taking their lumps to build their resumes in the hope of cashing in somewhere down the line and joining the 1 percent who live large. Or they fight for other reasons — love of craft, for instance — and resign themselves to day jobs.
Mayweather doesn’t have the record or offensive virtuosity to justify his claims to all-time greatness, but he is an excellent fighter: technically sound, superbly conditioned, ring-smart, and patient. But he’s not so much better than his contemporaries that he merits such an outsize share of the profits on ability alone. Nor is he a particularly engaging showman. In and especially out of the ring, he’s so joylessly committed to brand management that he makes LeBron James (the distant second-place finisher on SI’s list, with $56 million) look like a tortured introspective soul by comparison.
OK, so Mayweather makes a lot of money that should be spread around to other fighters, without whom there would be no sport of boxing and therefore no chance for him to be a star. What insight does that offer into what my former students are facing? Many of them are planning to go into higher education, journalism, or publishing, which are like boxing in two ways. They’re businesses I care about and rely on in part for my livelihood, and they’re all widely supposed to be in crisis: obsolescent, antiquated, irrelevant, superseded by newer and sexier competitors, reduced to an esoteric niche market, and otherwise lurching toward the grave.
Much of what’s happening to these other industries already happened to boxing a long time ago. There’s increasingly unapologetic income inequality, justified with the usual winner-take-all and star-system rationales. There’s the rush to disinvest from brick-and-mortar grounding in the social fabric (the neighborhood gym, the daily print newspaper, the college campus, the book) and place increasing emphasis on disembodied electronic spectacle (cable and pay-per-view, blogs and aggregators, MOOCs, near-infinite clouds of information). And there’s a widespread belief, so far not borne out, that technological innovation makes it possible to pay fewer and fewer competent humans to turn out a product without sacrificing quality.
None of these industries appears to be dropping dead just yet, despite the glee with which their demises are routinely forecast. But the money, even the ability to make a living at all, is increasingly concentrated at the top. Recent graduates are looking at a long battle against the odds to get within striking distance of it.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’