There is something dramatically wrong with sports these days and there's only one way to fix it: get rid of the money.
It used to be that athletes made average salaries, that taking your family to a live sporting event did not require a bank loan and that all sports were available on television for free as long as they aired on one of the three national networks. Now? Those things are fantasies of a past life.
In 1960, when the Lakers basketball team moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, the average player salary was $12,000. Basketball players in those days, including Lakers stars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, respected the sport and were good ambassadors of the game. There were no incidences of bad behavior off the court, no brawls on it or in the stands. Athletes from all sports were held in high esteem by kids, whose idol worship was worthy. These sports figures would sign autographs for kids (for free!); there was nothing special or extraordinary about them except that athletes made money doing what they loved to do.
Somewhere along the way, sports ceased to be about competition and more about the players who performed in those competitions. “Performed” is the operative word here because what happened is this: sports became entertainment.
Fast forward to the present.
The average NBA salary is now over $5 million. Fights break out on the court on a near-nightly basis; (just watch the Boston Celtics' star player Kevin ("Cheap Shot") Garnett and any team the Celtics are playing that night. Fights sometimes break out off the court; who could forget Indiana Pacers' Ron Artest (now, Metta World Peace and a Laker) who brawled deep into the stands after someone from the audience threw a cup of beer on him).
Moneybags image (c) shutterstock
We pay thousands of dollars to watch our favorite sports which have floated into the pay television realm. When the NBA sells the television and cable rights to its games for $2.2 billion and the NFL sells the rights to its games for $3 billion and networks make $500,000 for a 30-second commercial to air during the Super Bowl and almost $3 billion was bet on games in Las Vegas in 2011, wouldn’t you say that there’s too much money in sports? WE are paying for that $3 billion contract that Time Warner Cable just signed with the Lakers; WE will pay for that $7 billion contract that Time Warner is about to sign with the Dodgers.
And, to actually go to a game? Live sports have almost priced themselves out of the market. It used to be that a working stiff could go to The Fabulous Forum in Inglewood to watch some of the great basketball being played – this was when the Lakers were running Showtime with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Cooper, James Worthy…well, you know, the team that brought home five world championships. The 17,505 who attended the games not only got a good show and could cheer for a winning team but the experience was not going to bankrupt them. Meanwhile, a seat at Staples to watch the very mediocre version of the Lakers this year is phenomenally expensive. A courtside seat (if you can get one) is $2500. A seat in the lower bowl is over $250. And, if you buy a box, you still have to buy tickets for everyone who sits in the box with you. On top of that, if you want to grab some food at Staples, there’s a McDonald’s (that’s good) but the prices are almost double at this McD’s than they are two miles down Figueroa for the same meal (that’s bad). And, when you’re there, your vision is inundated with ads everywhere. And, I mean…everywhere. What does all this mean? It means the Buss Family has to find the money to pay for the extraordinary salaries for their players and that means the cost is shipped down to the consumer.
The Book of Timothy says it best: "For the love of money is the root of all evil."
Big money – money in the millions to rookie athletes who may not have graduated from college and are certainly not proven at the professional level – is tainting everything about athletics. It forever alters the reason players want to play sports. Athletes no longer feel the need to work hard, play for pride or for love of the game. Today, their motivation is tied up in dollar signs: they can’t wait to collect their millions, play with whatever energy they can muster and then switch to another team that will pay them more. This is the worst kind of motivating factor…ever! It breeds greed and fosters a lack of loyalty. For example, at this point in the NBA, Kobe Bryant is the only player who has played his entire career with the same team. Out of 450 players, that’s saying something.
Big money doesn’t just breed greed. It also showcases bad behavior. Athletes from baseball, hockey, football and soccer and scores of other sports have crossed the line into bad behavior because they have money to burn and if they get into trouble, there's always a way to bail themselves out. Every day, there are stories about sexual harassment, DUI, gun trouble, and other sordid brushes with the law. In this past season, there was an NFL murder-suicide and a DUI death, countless fights on and off the field, fights in nightclubs. Parents should think twice before allowing any of their kids to hero worship a modern athlete.
Look at what sports used to be like when athletes played for love of the game. Let’s take the Yankess’ Babe Ruth. In 1927, when he set the record for most homeruns in a single season at 60, he made $70,000 which, adjusted for inflation (according to economics professor Mark J. Perry), that would be $911,000. His batting average that year was .486. It’s no shocking admission that he was a better player than most players today who are making significantly more money than he did. Now, let's look at Alex Rodriguez, who made $29 million last year playing for the Yankees; his batting average was .120.
Yes, money appears to take away the desire to play…why work hard on the court when you can float by with a minimum of effort and then go home to your mansion and fancy car (or, in Kobe's case, helicopter). Certainly, it can cause an athlete to behave in a less-than-savory manner.
All of which brings me to the sports world's two recent hot stories that prove my theory that money really is the root of all evil.
The Manti Te'o story, with its ugly bits of unethical behavior (let's just say: flat-out lying), has captured the nation's interest. We can't get enough of the sordid details of this Notre Dame football player's made-up girlfriend and the attempts by Te'o's family, friends and now agent and lawyer to protect him at all costs. In fact, to me, it's laughable to see Manti and his friends and associates trying to protect his image. (As of right now, it looks like his friend Ronaiah Tuiasasoppo is going to take full responsibility…or should I say, the fall.) Although it's an ever-changing palette right now, it looks very much to me like Manti knew from the get-go that this woman was a fake and that he was perpetuating a hoax to garner sympathy from the Heisman voting crowd. Think about it: Manti is a defensive linebacker. Only one defensive player in Heisman history has ever won the coveted award as best player in college football. It makes sense to me that Manti and those in his circle would do what they could to bolster his chances to win. When you think about it, the plan seemed foolproof: make up a girlfriend and when the heat gets too hot, kill her off; even more convenient and more sympathetic…have her die within hours of your beloved grandmother. Heisman, here we come! The plan almost worked. He garnered national publicity and the cover of Sports Illustrated. But, as we all now know, he has garnered even more publicity for the foolish stunt/hoax/gullibility. Now, Manti looks like a boy who either is incredibly underhanded or foolishly innocent. Either way, the plan had the exact opposite effect on Manti’s chances. Oh, and he didn’t win the Heisman and he was completely outplayed in the BCS Championship Game. What caused this major idiotic story in the first place? I’m just guessing here but could it possibly be the millions he stands to earn if he’s a Heisman Trophy winner and an early round draft pick (which would certainly happen if he won the Heisman). Just so you know, last year’s No. 1 NFL pick, Andrew Luck, earned $22 million for four years; the last pick in the first round earned $6.6 million for four years. That’s quite a significant difference.
Manti's travails came on the heels of Lance Armstrong's oddly unrepentant admission that he doped throughout his entire career, including through all seven of his Tour de France victories and his Olympic victory. His admission on Oprah (why Oprah? why not a sports network?) seemed insincere at best and calculated and phony at worst. The worst part of this little apology tour? It seemed to this observer that Lance was trying to protect whatever money he had left in his wallet. At the height of his career, his endorsements were valued at $75 million (from companies such as Nike, Annheuser-Busch) and his tournament wins and bonuses totaled another $2.5 million. According to some reports, he’s still worth $25 million but he might have to repay the awards he got when he sued people for accusing him of doping…and won those lawsuits! Lance may not have begun his career in cycling for the money but his fake success in it brought him great wealth which propelled him to continue in the sport…and to continue cheating in the sport.
So, what’s the answer to this dilemma? During every collective bargaining negotiation in every sport, the owners try to push back and offer their players less. But then the players strike (or, are locked out by the owners) until the financial repercussions are so severe that both sides must come to terms. Usually, it’s the owners who cave and the players go on to win their lofty contract money.
Call me an idealist but I say that if you get rid of the money – the multimillion dollar contracts that all sports seem to present their players – then only those who play for love of the game will be left. They will play with their hearts and not with an eye on their sport’s Collective Bargaining Agreement to see how much they can make if they moved to another team when they become free agents or on how they’ll cash in on the millions more they could be making in endorsements.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch athletes play…who love to play? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to go to a game and not feel the noticeable hole in your wallet? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to follow an athlete and have that man or woman actually live up to your expectations?
When can we have that world back?
What do you think of this theory? Am I too right…or am I horribly wrong?
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