Almost every morning I scan a number of sports pages on the Internet and a story (several, actually) in the Chicago papers caught my eye a week or so ago. It was about Ben Gordon, a guard for the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, and his salary struggles with the team.
Gordon is entering his fifth NBA season and will be eligible for free agency at its end. Teams often try to tie their better players to long-term deals before they gain their contractual freedom and the Bulls did this with Gordon last season, reportedly offering him something around $50 million over five years. Gordon said uh-uh and played out the campaign. More negotiations ensued and the Bulls changed their offer to $58 million over six years, a bit of a drop on an annual basis. Gordon, who is said to have sought an annual paycheck in the vicinity of $12 million, said uh-uh again.
When the new season approached with no deal in sight, the Bulls made the young man a “qualifying” offer of $6.4 million that would retain his services for this season only, after which he’d be free to try to better his lot elsewhere. Gordon wound up taking it, but not with good grace. “I can go into a long list of things I’m surprised about that didn’t happen,” he remarked upon his appearance at training camp, using the elliptical language with which jocks often express themselves these days.
What Gordon really is “worth” in his league is an open question. He’s a quick-draw jump shooter who scores and runs the floor well but isn’t especially good at handling the ball, passing, penetrating or defending. In his mind he’s Allen Iverson, driving the lane and making shots from every conceivable angle, but when he tries an Iverson-like move he usually gets stripped or stuffed. I wouldn’t give him $12 mil per to play on my team.
The point I want to make, though, has to do with Gordon’s apparent disdain for the salary for which he’s forced to labor this season and the fact that his attitude toward it is typical rather than exceptional among today’s big-time professional athletes. Six point four million dollars a year is an enormous amount of money by any standard other than theirs, or, maybe, Angelina Jolie’s. Treating it as chump change boggles the mind.
The jock-salary explosion already had started when I began writing regularly about sports in the mid-1980s, with the average Major League Baseball player’s salary hovering around $500,000 a year. That number seems quaint now but was more than enough for me to note that the typical ballplayer probably was earning more in a year than his father did in a lifetime.
Impressive as it was, the comparison no longer holds. The current average-annual-pay figures— about $3.2 million in baseball, $3.7 million in the NBA and $1.5 million in the National Football League--probably are more than every father on the jock’s block ever will make. Looked at another way, even after taxes one year as an “average” NBA player should be enough to insure that the recipient and his family can live comfortably forevermore, without again needing to work. And that’s for doing something others do for fun.
In good economic years and bad, salaries at pro sports’ upper levels have risen to the point where, I’m sure, the sums involved are abstractions to the people who receive them, losing all relationship to human needs. They’re a source of competition in an already competitive milieu, with players asking for more at least partly because they want to outdo the guy across the locker room. The type of consumption that often goes with the lush pay is competitive, too, which is one reason jock fortunes sometimes disappear quickly. It’s only monopoly money, after all.
What should we make of this? A few in my acquaintance say they’re so disgusted with the big-money aspects of sports that they’ve turned them off, but most of us are able to separate the cash and the games and enjoy the latter anyway. Otherwise, we can invoke wise sayings about life’s unfairness, such as Mel Brook’s “It’s good to be king,” or ponder the line (Babe Ruth’s, I think) about how nobody who works for anybody else is overpaid.
And remember, being a fan ain’t like playing taxes, it’s voluntary. They only get your money if you give it to them.