The depravity of Major League Eating.

Science, technology, and life.
July 8 2010 7:43 AM

Deep Throat

The depravity of Major League Eating.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Every Fourth of July, Nathan's Famous, the frankfurter chain, hosts a hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island, N.Y. Tragically, this year's contest was marred. Six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi was hauled away by police after storming the stage. He had been barred from the contest for refusing to sign a contract with Major League Eating.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Contracts? Major League Eating? Is this some kind of joke?

Nope. It's worse. It's a joke that has turned serious.

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In the old days, eating contests were just for fun. A bunch of ordinary folks would line up at a county fair to see who could swallow the most pie. Pretty soon, they'd run out of pie, time, or belly space. Things are different now. Competitive eating has become an industry with stars, managers, corporate sponsors, international marketing, and a pro league. It's generating more money, more exposure, and more physical abuse. Before we reach for another helping of this perversity, it's time to ask whether we've had enough.

Major League Eating, founded 13 years ago as the International Federation of Competitive Eating, began as a lark. The PR men who run it, brothersGeorge and Rich Shea, gave it a comic Latin motto that meant "In gorging, truth." They called their members "Horsemen of the Esophagus" and "weapons of mass digestion." For this year's hot-dog contest, they outlawed vuvuzelas.

But MLE is no longer a joke. In the last year, it has organized 85 contests with nearly $600,000 in prizes. It has secured sponsorships from Coca-Cola, Harrah's, Netflix, Orbitz, Pizza Hut, Smirnoff, and Waffle House. This year, it recruited Pepto-Bismol, Old Navy, and Heinz to sponsor the hot-dog contest. In addition to MLE's TV programming for Fox, SpikeTV, and other networks, ESPN now pays the league to broadcast the hot-dog contest, with 40,000 spectators on hand and another 1.5 million households watching.

Success has given MLE the swagger of a monopoly. It compares itself to the NFL and boasts exclusive representation of "the world's top competitive eating stars." On Monday, MLE President Rich Shea told CBS, "If you want to be in the Super Bowl, you have to be in the NFL. If you want to be in the Super Bowl of competitive eating, which is the Nathan's contest, you have to be a Major League Eater." Outside MLE, he scoffed, "I don't know where else you go."

Hence the contract dispute. Years ago, Kobayashi and others entered the hot-dog contest as amateurs. Then MLE introduced contracts. This year, MLE barred Kobayashi because he refused to sign its contract, which restricted his freedom to earn money from activities outside MLE, such as endorsing products. Kobayashi's description of the league's demands resembles a purported standard MLE (IFOCE) contract that has been posted online by a rival league, All Pro Eating. Under the posted contract, the "performer agrees to participate solely and exclusively in organized competitive eating events, exhibitions and appearances … which are sanctioned and approved by the IFOCE." Furthermore, "IFOCE shall also be Performer's sole and exclusive representative with regard to obtaining and/or negotiating on Performer's [behalf] for any revenue opportunities," including "personal appearances, merchandising, licensing, advertising, film, television, radio, internet and all other media." For this, the "performer agrees to pay IFOCE 20% of the gross amounts payable to performer under said agreements."

On Sunday, when Kobayashi stormed the stage, Rich Shea dealt him MLE's worst insult: "unprofessional."

But competitive eating has become more than professional. According to Kobayashi, it's now government-sanctioned. "I recently received a O-1 visa to work in the United States, a visa granted to athletes judged to have 'extraordinary ability,' " he reports. "In my case that ability was competitive eating." Such visas are officially reserved for people with "extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics."

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