Friday, November 26, 2004

Pro sports and the little guy
Tom Schaller of DailyKos has an intriguing post up about the whole Pacers-Pistons debacle that's been grabbing headlines for a week now. The gist of it is that perhaps we shouldn't be so hard on professional athletes, many of whom have extremely short careers and never become millionaires. The implication is also that the antipathy toward the player's unions in the NBA, NHL, and MLB is somewhat misguided. Schaller writes:

Yes, many of these professional athletes are millionaires, and surely some subset of these are "spoiled" or "pampered." But not all make millions per year, many have short-lived careers, and some are carrying not only their immediate but extended families on their back. (Including Artest, by the way...but read more about him in Sally Jenkins' column today.) And if you think pro sports, especially football, doesn't take a toll, consider that NFL players have lower life
expectancies than their age cohorts, and that guys like Bill Walton (who played hoops, not football) can hardly stand up for more than an hour before their knees give way. They get millions because that's what the market yields for persons who are among just a few hundred that can perform in their profession at such a high level; corporate CEOs (many of whom perform much worse) make the same supply-and-demand claims to justify their salaries.

Now, that's all well and good as far as it goes. Professional sports players deserve to be compensated what the market will bear (as long as the league can maintain competetive balance), and I'd much rather my cash go to the players than the owners. The trouble is that the unions no longer seem to be fighting for the little guys in pro sports -- it's all about fighting a salary cap so that A-Rod can make $27 million a year. If it was really about the little guy, the unions would be fighting to lower the number of years to qualify for a pension (it's 10 in baseball), to make sure college players complete their diplomas before entering the NBA or NFL (so if they flame out they aren't completely lost), and demanding significant raises in the minimum salary. They'd be fighting for the guys who make it to the Show for two or three years and then get hurt or injured and have nothing to fall back on. But let's be honest -- that's not what they're doing.

And yes, I read Jenkins' column about Artest, and I'm not really moved. This is a guy who's been around the NBA since 1999, and surely will have the opportunity to make many more millions over the course of his career, so long as he keeps his fists at his sides. In fact, he's already earned well over a million dollars this year, which, even after you take out those evil taxes (which aren't 39 percent anymore, Sally), and the evil agent fees, is still a significant amount of money, more than most people earn in 10 years. It's noble that Artest wants to take care of his entire family with his salary, but that shouldn't excuse him from responsibility for what he did in that arena. What if someone had gotten killed? Would be we still be getting a weepy tribute to Artest's father had the flying chair ended the life of an innocent bystander?

The NBA players' union is just digging a hole for itself on this one. By fighting Stern's entirely reasonable suspension of Artest and the other Pacers, it is damaging the reputation of unions everywhere, and further eroding public trust in professional athletes, most of whom, as Schaller points out, do a lot of good things with charities, in addition to providing the quality entertainment that millions of Americans seek and enjoy. But as long as the unions are seen to be more concerned about the Sprewells and the Artests of the universe than they are about the guys who are still getting screwed by the system, they aren't going to get very far in the realm of public opinion.

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