Sports salaries shouldn't anger us, even in bad economy   

Updated: March 4, 2009, 3:00 PM ET

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While unemployment soars (600,000 jobs cut in January alone), stock prices plummet (lowest in a dozen years) and many of us bookmark monster.com, Manny Ramirez won't sign a two-year, $45 million contract from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Spring training started two weeks ago, no other team is offering him a job and Manny isn't willing to accept that offer because it isn't enough money.

If that doesn't make steam comes out of your ears like Yosemite Sam then it's probably because your outrage is too narrowly focused on Octomom.

Or perhaps what angers you is the way UConn coach Jim Calhoun so quickly and arrogantly dismissed a question about whether he would consider a pay cut ("not a dime back") when the state is facing massive deficits. Or perhaps it's the $20 million contract offer that quarterback Kurt Warner reportedly feels is inadequate for returning to the Cardinals. Or the $500 million arena billionaire Clay Bennett demanded Seattle taxpayers build him before moving the Sonics to Oklahoma.

Or it could be any of the sports salaries that have been so far beyond the average American's pay stub for so long that the disparity has infuriated fans since Scott Boras was advising his fellow Little Leaguers to hold out for two postgame snow cones (with extra orange syrup).

For many people the current financial angst makes the disparity that much tougher to stomach. Thirty-nine percent of fans responding to a recent SportsNation poll said that because of the current economy, sports salaries bother them now more than before. Thirty-one percent say the salaries never bothered them (these people are lying) and 29 percent say the two subjects aren't related (these people are still employed).

Should those salaries upset us? Or at least, should they upset us now any more than they ever have?

The answer is no, especially now. I agree with the 1 percent of fans who answered the survey by saying salaries bother them less these days. Given the fury regarding the obscene executive compensations in the past year, sports salaries shouldn't bother us as much as in the past. The salaries of sports figures may be monstrous, but they don't affect our employment and livelihoods.

A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

You should be more irritated by inflated CEO salaries than the big money given to athletes like A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia.

Yes, Ben Roethlisberger's $27 million paycheck (including signing bonuses) this past season was awfully high for throwing around a leather ball 19 weekends. But at least he led the Steelers to victory in the Super Bowl. Kerry Killinger received more than $14 million in compensation while leading Washington Mutual into the biggest bank failure in U.S history, and worse, his replacement, Alan Fishman, reportedly received a like amount despite working only 18 days before the company collapsed.

Sure, Kevin Garnett has earned $174 million for running up and down courts in his gym trunks since 2000, but at least when he misses a shot, it doesn't cost thousands of people their jobs. Richard Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers, received $484 million during the same time period even though he led his company into bankruptcy and helped spur the current economic crisis.

And yes, Richie Sexson received $50 million to strike out 497 times and bat .244 for the Mariners over the past four seasons. But at least Seattle fans weren't required to buy tickets to watch him do so. According to Forbes, Richard Wagoner Jr., the CEO of General Motors, made $25 million over the past five years, and we all have to help pay for his poor performance through a $13.4 billion (and possibly $30 billion) federal bailout.

Sports pay may be astronomical, but Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning aren't cheating us out of our retirement funds (as Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford allegedly did many people, including several athletes). CEO compensation is what is obscene.

Look at it this way. It's not like player salaries are going to go to Habitat for Humanity otherwise. If the money doesn't wind up in the pockets of multimillionaire athletes, it will wind up in the Swiss bank accounts of multibillionaire owners, and of those two, I know which one I prefer with the money. Nor do high salaries correspond with higher ticket prices. Teams set ticket prices not on how much they pay Kobe Bryant but on how much we're willing to pay to see Kobe. After all, how many times have you seen a team lower ticket prices after losing a top player to free agency?

If we don't like it, no one is forcing us to buy tickets, no more than we had to buy a ticket to see "Master and Commander," for which Russell Crowe earned $20 million.

But that's the free-market system. What about employees who receive their paychecks from the state rather than private companies? What about college coaches such as Calhoun, who receive so much money for coaching that they should be paid with those big, 3-foot-by-2-foot checks golfers pose with after winning a tournament?

Russell Crowe

Twentieth Century Fox

Did you see "Master and Commander"? No? But Russell Crowe still earned $20 million.

Calhoun asserted that his $1.6 million salary (and as he gloated, he actually makes more than that) is different than the salaries earned by the lowly rabble of other state employees because his program brings in $12 million to the University of Connecticut. Well, when you consider the various revenue sources, the team probably does generate that much money and Calhoun shares a great deal of credit for the team's success over the years. He isn't wholly responsible, though. The marketing department, public relations staff and the base of alumni support are important as well. Nor does that $12 million go directly into the school's bank account. As the Hartford Courant determined, approximately $6 million goes to cover the basketball team's expenses, leaving it with a "profit" of $6 million.

In other words, Calhoun's $1.6 million salary is about 27 percent of the program's net profit, a rate of return that would impress most CEOs other than the aforementioned Killinger, Fishman and Fuld.

But still. Fine. Many athletic departments are self-sustaining while college athletics have been in an ever-escalating arms race since John Wooden's Pyramid for Success had only a single, base level. So if no other state employees are being asked to take pay cuts, why should a coach just because he's the state's highest-paid employee? By the same token, if other state employees are being asked to take cuts, then he should as well, if only for appearance's sake.

After all, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell works for a private enterprise, yet he recently announced he's taking a 20 percent pay cut, while we can only hope it kept the league from cutting more than the 169 jobs it did.

Goodell's pay cut is refreshing because, let's face it, even though we're talking about the free market and private enterprise, and even if athletes with short career spans are fully entitled to as much money as billionaires are willing to pay them, there is just something indecent about a $28 million salary, no matter the occupation, especially when so many people are worried about their own jobs. A passage in Justin Merozzi's splendid new travel book, "The Way of Herodotus," jumped out at me recently. Herodotus, the father of history, writes about Croesus losing his kingdom, his colossal wealth and finally his life all because he didn't listen to the advice of Solon. Dismissing the king's greed and fortune, Solon warned Croesus that, "Often enough God gives man a glimpse of happiness and then utterly ruins him."

Perhaps spiraling state and local deficits will finally provide communities the backbone needed to say no to teams demanding new stadiums, or at the very least, make them scrutinize the budget a little more. Does each veteran really need two lockers, one lined with antique redwood and the other with Carrara white marble?

Or as my mother cautioned, "Pigs wind up getting slaughtered."

So maybe this economy will be a welcome wakeup call for sports and bring a hint of sanity. After all, the downturn prompted many baseball teams to spend their money differently this winter, occasionally foregoing the high-priced free-agent veteran in favor of a cheaper, younger and possibly more productive player already in the organization. Perhaps cash-starved colleges will also bring the arms war in coaching salaries to a temporary halt, or at least slow it down considerably.

Perhaps spiraling state and local deficits will finally provide communities the backbone needed to say no to teams demanding new stadiums, or at the very least, make them scrutinize the budget a little more. Must a locker room really be large enough for the Colts, the Rockettes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to dress in? Does each veteran really need two lockers, one lined with antique redwood and the other with Carrara white marble? Maybe teams will discover that making do with less actually leads to the very charm that the new retro stadiums try to replicate from the old parks, which were built the way they were because owners were forced to cut corners, sometimes literally so.

Perhaps teams will begin pricing their tickets toward the average fan rather than the failing corporations. Yes, it's all a matter of supply and demand, but isn't there something just plain wrong about charging $325 for a seat behind first base and $100 for a seat in the second deck? Or $100 for a spring training game? Maybe it would make more sense in the long run if the sports business model relied just a little less on free-spending corporations to buy up the most expensive seats (and often not use them) and just a little more on fans who truly want to see the product year in and year out.

Perhaps the tightening budgets will inspire other highly paid league executives to follow Goodell's example, and cut their salaries to save jobs.

And perhaps we'll focus more on the salaries that really affect us -- i.e., the CEO payouts that the board of directors rubber-stamps for one another -- and less on the ones that merely make us envious.

Or perhaps, more likely, we'll continue business as usual, with players earning untold millions to play games that make the owners untold millions more while the rest of us jealously wish we were in their place instead of worrying about our jobs disappearing.

So does the current economic climate affect your feelings about the money sports figures earn? The answer, I suppose, depends on whether the player is on your team and how high his ERA is.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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