Commentary

NBA players can't expect fan sympathy

Updated: July 2, 2011, 1:27 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

At a key negotiating session in New York between NBA owners and players on June 23, union chief Billy Hunter tried to point out some common ground between the players' issues with ownership and working class Americans' struggle for respect in the workplace.

"It's part of the overall climate that one sees around the country," Hunter told reporters after another unsuccessful session. "True, our players may earn a few more dollars than the average person, but they're still confronted by the same issues."

Some of the things NBA players are demanding from owners are fair, just and deserved. But if Hunter and the players are expecting the public to embrace their side during this NBA labor strife, they have sorely miscalculated.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesFan support for the players during the lockout is not a slam dunk.

If you grouped all professional athletes in a high-rise apartment building, NBA players would be staying in the penthouse and just about everyone else would be in studio apartments.

The average salary for an NBA player is a staggering $4.8 million, which is the highest average pay of any sports league in the world.

That's not to suggest that NBA players don't have a right to equitable treatment or a right to complain about their conditions, but big contracts make for big targets.

On some level, sports fans can relate more closely to NFL players. They don't have guaranteed contracts. The average NFL career lasts 3½ years and we've seen men suffer less than fulfilling post-football lives because of debilitating injuries they suffered while playing.

The average NFL player salary is $1.9 million -- a payday the majority of us will never see -- but the perception is that the NFL is a true meritocracy.

The wealth of NBA players is a more contentious issue because smaller rosters mean individual players have higher profiles and with guaranteed contracts there seem to be too many guys who should wear ski masks when they collect their paychecks.

Rashard Lewis, who has averaged 20 points per game just three times in his 13-year career, is the second-highest paid player in the NBA at $20 million per season. Gilbert Arenas, who was suspended most of last season for storing unloaded handguns in the locker room, is in the middle of a $111 million deal. Amir Johnson, a relatively unknown career reserve who has started 83 games in six seasons and has never averaged double figures, is due to make $25 million over the next four seasons. Darko Milicic, a former No. 2 overall pick who is considered one of the biggest busts in NBA draft history, is on a four-year, $20 million deal, even though his career average is 6.1 points a game.

In the NBA, these kind of bad deals seem endless.

Of course, these players didn't pay themselves. The owners did. But the cold truth is that despite the owners' culpability in causing the broken NBA system, the players will be the ones who take the brunt of the criticism simply because the owners aren't as visible.

[+] EnlargeLabor Protest
Scott Olson/Getty ImagesFans and players may both have grievances, but the perceptions of NBA salaries and stars differ vastly from the reality of most people's lives.

Fans see LeBron James' face in commercials. They see Dwyane Wade posing in high-end fashion magazines. Carmelo Anthony signs young rappers to his successful entertainment company.

The fans don't see mistreatment. They see success.

Besides, the fans haven't forgotten that Latrell Sprewell ONCE said that he "couldn't feed his family" on a $21 million contract. Nor have they forgotten how in 1999 Patrick Ewing, then the president of the players' association, said during contract negotiations that "NBA players make a lot of money, but we spend a lot, too."

Also not helping the players' case: James' response to season-long criticism.

"All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today," James said after the Heat lost in the Finals. "They have the same personal problems they had today. I'm going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want to do with me and my family and be happy with that. So they can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they got to get back to the real world at some point."

I thought LeBron had the right to finally address some of the petty mean-spiritedness that's been directed toward him and the Heat, but others considered his words pompous and elitist.

These moments, no matter how justified or exaggerated, reflect poorly on NBA players. By contrast, Reggie Bush jokingly tweeting that the lockout meant he would finally get some much-needed rest is already forgotten because professional football is the darling of American sports fans.

Not even the thrilling NBA playoffs will be enough to help the players maintain the goodwill they've established with fans. Because despite what Hunter may think, the struggling economy doesn't make fans more sensitive to labor issues or player concerns.

It makes them far less forgiving.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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