"Every time we call it a business, you call it a game, and every time we call it a game, you call it a business."
-- Peter Gent, "North Dallas Forty"
Those of you who've spent the past few years reading, feeding, clicking, auditing, blogging, downloading, uploading, watching and tweeting the sports headlines know there's a good chance that on any given day the lead sports story will be about money. Who's got it, who wants it, who's won it and who's arguing about it.
The migraine drumbeat of the capital A, capital E American Economy is inescapable, even -- or perhaps especially -- on the sports page.
Unemployment's up; sales, wages and spirits are down; the No. 8 car can't find a sponsor; Yankee Stadium might cost taxpayers millions; skyboxes go empty while our soup kitchens are full; ticket prices mixed; concessions holding steady; players' salaries up; coaches' salaries up; everything up, up, up -- except for those of us among the freshly down and out.
Take heart. Economics, the dismal science, trumpets a breakthrough in quantitative linguistics:
An arm, hinged to the pinstriped corpus of CC Sabathia, is now worth exactly $161 million.
A leg, attached to Man U matinee idol Cristiano Ronaldo, will fetch $110 million if he transfers to Real Madrid.
Total cost of an arm and a leg circa 2009: $271 million. We need guess no longer.
By my own chowderheaded estimates, sports reporting in America splits lately along these lines: 60 percent of our coverage is devoted to highlights and game results and what happened on the field; 30 percent is devoted to the business of sports and who got how much from whom to do what; the remaining 10 percent is given over to the crime blotter and the scandal sheet.
That 60/30 split on sports reporting and sports business reporting began in earnest about 30 years ago, in the early days of free agency. The size of a contract was another way of measuring a player's, um, worth. Or an agent's. Or an owner's. This was around the same time that news organizations started using box-office results to judge the relative merits of motion pictures.
Americans love a clear result, even if it's meaningless, and thus are suckers for top-10 lists and rankings and charticles of any kind. Counting up dollars is an easy way to tally the imaginary winners and losers across every field.
But Americans have always been schizophrenic about money. We're obsessed by it, but we're taught that talking about it is impolite. We wish it for ourselves, but resent it in others (especially if they're "not one of us"). We're driven by getting it and spending it, saving it or pissing it away, flaunting it or hoarding it or just making it rain. Money lies at the core of the very systems we live by, democracy and capitalism, and infects or informs or inspires almost everything we do.
From the Puritans to the Robber Barons to Gatsby to the Gospel of Prosperity, money is the root, for good and evil, of our Great American Mystery.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
To some fans, CC Sabathia's massive contract stirs resentment. But what was he supposed to do -- turn down the offer?
My Page 2 colleagues are looking into the relationship between sports and fans and money and our incredible shrinking economy. Jim Caple unspools the personal stories of fans in these newly tough times:
- "I'm unemployed. I'm feeling pretty down in the dumps. But dammit, I've got a Blazers game to look forward to,'' Erik Ritter said. "I don't know if I would appreciate this season as much as if I wasn't unemployed, as weird as that sounds. Looking back, I totally took for granted going to games."
Jemele Hill reports on how the recent gray-market downturn has affected the secondary ticket market, Tim Keown visits the Sacramento Kings to find out why it's suddenly all too easy to get great seats at ARCO Arena, and Paul Lukas interviews Frank Coonelly, the president of the Pittsburgh Pirates:
- "We had owners' meetings in November and January. Typically at these meetings, you hear people talking about their successes: 'This is going terrific,' or 'We introduced this new program and it's really taking off,'" Coonelly said. "But for the first time since I've been in the industry, you could see that the economy was having an effect on everyone."
Whether we're remaking the economy, or the economy is remaking us, these are dire times for us all.
Only people with too much money will tell you that it can't buy happiness. And only people with too little would believe that it could.
• The Marlins are giving away tickets to unemployed South Florida residents.
• The Brewers and Braves have some seats available
• The Athletics sell more than 9,000 seats for $2 each for all Wednesday games.
Which brings us around to the 21st century state of the professional athlete.
Back in 1996, just before the Atlanta Olympics, my friend Roger Angell wrote a smart essay in The New Yorker about the third incarnation of the U.S. basketball Dream Team. There had been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth that year about how callow young American millionaires could possibly motivate themselves to compete. Conventional wisdom from columnists everywhere supposed that, undone by money and fame, they would have no incentive at all.
Mr. Angell proposed the opposite. That having already won salaries beyond their wildest imaginings, our young men would rise to the occasion for pride and pride alone.
- "How very postmodern
that these gilded gladiators -- rich beyond temptation, cosseted beyond envy -- should turn out to be the 1990s' closest approximation of the gentlemanly ideal of the Edwardian amateur, on which, a century ago, the modern Olympic Games were founded."
A gold medal that year neither confirmed nor refuted the theory -- any more than the absence of one did in 2004 -- but it seems to me that after the first $20 million or $50 million or $100 million check clears, personal pride and the will to excel are the only reasons left to drive the Bentley to the ballgame.
And this: Most of the men and women I've met over the years in professional sports would gladly go on playing their games for much less than they're being paid now. This is not altruism, merely circumstance. Great athletes have a calling, after all -- a thing they very much love doing, that feeds their spirit and their heart, and to which they're perfectly suited. Rather it is the market, reflecting the madness of the individuals who constitute it, that determines the relative value of that calling, whether to be a linebacker or golfer or shortstop. The athlete (and the agent and the owner) just operate within the market we allow them to create. If we're paying $80 million for shortstops, why would shortstops take less? But having said that, do you really think there'd be fewer big league shortstops if the ceiling for big league shortstops was $8 million? Or $800,000? For years those prices were kept artificially low. Now they've bubbled artificially -- and breathtakingly -- high.
AP Photo/Susan Ragan
Grant Hill and the 1996 Dream Team played for pride in Atlanta, and we suspect that's a more powerful motivating force for elite athletes than a paycheck.
Like the credit derivatives officer at AIG, the athlete takes the money simply because we've all chosen to make it available to them.
We'd likely all take the money if the market handed it to us. I'm not sure the converse is true, though. How many of us would show up at our job tomorrow simply because we love how it makes us feel to do it?
In the midst of our current upsets, with new hardship all around us and our sub-prime house of cards fallen at last, it is an easy thing to grow resentful of athletes and their easy privilege.
Cushioned by their millions, safe behind the gates of their gaudy chateaux out there in suburban Cul-de-Sacistan, or rolling loud and fast out of the players' lot behind a veil of tinted glass, or decorating the tabloids and the blogs with their serial indiscretions, they can seem as contemptible as any wolfish investment banker.
All of that falls away, at least for me, when they go to work inside the lines.
Because down on the field -- or out on the course, the court, the ice, the diamond, the track -- the fundamental athletic act persists. That animal gesture of muscle made human by intellect, ambition and faith. At once momentary and eternal. Run. Hit. Throw. Generation upon generation, the sporting life remains as it was 2,000 years ago. Fame and fortune, sure, and heroes and villains and love and hate. But breath and blood and life, too. You win. You lose. You persist. The athletes' original privilege, a gift beyond treasure, is being allowed to play as hard as they can for as long as they can.
Now more than ever in need of diversion, the rest of us join them, if only in witness, and find whatever grace we can in their struggle.
Whether or not there's ever been a genuine truth found out there on the field -- or only the illusion of a truth we delude ourselves into seeing -- the absolute purity of the gesture itself is priceless and incorruptible.
Our games' essential humanity remains unchanged.
In times as hard as these, will our own?
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.