You read this space for the unusual opinions and the occasional laugh, right? Keep that in mind. I say that because I’m going to talk about professional sports. Even worse, I’m going to be sympathetic to the players.
There’s always a lot of talk about “fat-cats” and “greedy vs. greedier” in connection with professional sports. Whenever contract talks or strike actions come up in conversation around the water cooler, people inevitably end up complaining about the high salaries and spoiled players. And it’s true: some player salaries are astronomical, and some players act very spoiled as a result.
However, professional athletes, in spite of the multi-digit salary figures, have it tougher than you think. (Hey, bear with me!) Consider, for a moment, the single issue of job security. First of all, you have to be good enough to make to the big leagues, which means spending a lot of time on unknown, mostly unloved, and underpaid ball teams — in the hopes of catching the eye of a scout. If you don’t make it, you’ve just wasted the prime of your life honing skills that aren’t remotely useful. Last time I looked, bat swinging didn’t qualify under the heading “work experience” on your resume. Unless you’re looking to join the mafia, I guess.
Once you get to the big leagues, you have to stay there. What the heck is “secure” about basing your entire income on your ability to consistently hurl an 80 kph ball at a small target? And what happens if your nephew decides to give you a real-life demonstration of his new karate skills? Crack! Bad rotator cuff? Goodbye stardom. Unless you’re Nolan Ryan, you have to count on a short, and probably painful career.
Forget stability. Too bad if your wife has friends and a job in this city. Too bad your kids are well-established in school. You’ve just been traded to the west coast. Ciao. Next year? Maybe Japan will take you. Or, you can spend your career on the road away from family completely. How many marriages survive that?
How about employer expectations? Everyone makes mistakes, but your boss doesn’t tape your on-the-job whoopsies and broadcast them around the world. (“Tonight on OfficeBeat – Bernie fries the photocopier! Instant replays!”) There aren’t too many radio call-in shows that feature an up-close-and-personal discussion on your recent email slump. And have you ever had to make deliveries while being watched by 50,000 rowdy, beer-drinking fans? Talk about pressure!
Let’s look at the salaries. Sure, they’re big, and it’s not fair that a second baseman gets paid more than a doctor. But, try to think in terms of expenses. Being a superstar has got to be costly. There are bodyguards to pay, homes to secure, travel expenses, operations and medicine to stay healthy. Perhaps the team helps pay for it. Or maybe it doesn’t. That might depend on your last season’s ERA.
We should also remember that professional baseball (and any other sport like it) is a business, not a game. That’s why it’s dubbed `professional,’ after all. And if you think the connection between money and baseball is a new one, just think back to the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, and you’ll see that it’s not a new phenomenon. Kids play games. Adults always have, and always will, play for keeps.
More than anything else, though, sports professionals entertain a lot of us. I didn’t particularly feel the lack of pro sports when the pandemic shut everything down, but I know lots of people who did. There’s value in what they do. Entertainers and creatives — especially creatives, but that’s another column — should be paid for the service they render.
As to how much? In the triple digit millions seems … excessive. Lionel Messi, as of this writing, has a 4-year $673 million (USD) dollar contract, so he pulls down something like $168 million a year. On the other hand FC Barcelona was on track for $1 billion in revenue for 2021, and it seems to me that the players, the people who actually provide the entertainment, deserve a decent piece of that.
Then again, those players don’t win games without a huge support system, and the people who look after the equipment, clean the stinky practice clothes, and slop out the dug outs and the penalty boxes probably don’t get paid nearly enough.
The NHL implemented player salary caps a long time ago, for a number of very good reasons. But as long as we’re willing to think about caps, we should also be looking at floors too: living wages, not minimum wages for those other parts of the sports complex. And as long we’re willing to consider caps and floors in sports, we should also look at implementing them elsewhere, to start smoothing out some of the horrific inequities that plague our planet.
Not everyone paid the same no matter their ability, comrade, so relax. But a minimum that doesn’t require choosing between the rent and dinner, and a maximum that doesn’t result in the aggregation of power in the hands of a few.
And then we’d have a sports analogy worth applying to the rest of the economy. Because we really have to start coming together as a team.