For the Love of the Game

By John A. Poole
Updated: November 20, 2007

Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter

GLEN BURNIE, MARYLAND — Have the increased salaries in sports caused players to forget the reasons why they play professional sports? What happened to playing the game because it was a childhood dream to play at Wrigley Field — or Yankee Stadium? Or the dream of hitting the game winning jump shot as time expires — to win the NBA Championship? The times have changed and so have the players and their attitudes. It has changed from being played on the field or court to being played in the owner’s office or out on the golf course.

In 2001, players are taking advantage of their opportunities to make more money than has ever been seen in professional sports. Players are signing multi-million dollar contracts that total, in some cases, over $200 million. Then, there are the players who have been in the circle of professionals for a year or two and feel the need to threaten owners and fans, sometime accusing owners of not showing enough respect and threatening to sit out an entire season if their contract is not restructured.

But are the players really to blame? From the point of view of the fan, the state of professional sports can be sickening. From the point of view of a businessperson, respect is the only word to use in conjunction with these contracts. Players have learned how to use their leverage over owners to exploit a business that has been exploiting players for decades. The Mickey Mantle’s and the Willie Mays’ of the game never came close to making the money players are making today. Even factoring in cost of living increases and adjustments for inflation, players’ salaries are greatly disproportionate from then to now.

So, I ask the question again. Are the players really the ones we need to blame? I say, “No.” They are doing what anyone else would do if they had the skills and talents that these athletes have. Everyday, in the professional workforce, we contemplate ways to make more money. We look for ways to manipulate situations to fill our pockets and add to our bank accounts. Given the opportunity, I do not believe there is a person alive who would turn down $25 million to play a child’s game that they love.

We sit and criticize these athletes for wanting more money, when it is exactly what we might do in the same situation. There are two words that might be used to describe this. They are “envy” and “jealousy.” We envy these athletes for their talents and we’re jealous that we do not have them. Every time we go to the ballpark or watch a game on television, the famous words are uttered: “If only I had those skills…” Or my all time favorite: “If I were just 3 or 4 inches taller…”

We are a society taught to get everything out of life that we can. But, when we see someone else achieving that goal, jealousy can rear its head. So does it make sense that an athlete may be angry that he is not making what someone with less talent and ability is making? How do would we feel if a lazybones sitting across from us in the office were to make more than we do? You know the person I’m speaking about. The fellow who rides someone else’s coattails straight to the next promotion. I know what would happen. We would have a conniption. We would be the first to experience this as an injustice.

So, once again I ask the question, are the players the ones we need to blame? Again, I answer with an emphatic “No!” We should blame ourselves for placing these athletes on pedestals and expecting them to want less than what we are willing to want for ourselves. The opportunity to live comfortably and enjoy the career that we choose. The ability to be compensated justly for the services that we provide.

Is a postman’s job less important than that of a professional basketball player? No. But would we pay to watch a postman walk from house to house delivering our mail in a timely manner? Or how about the people who build the stadiums and office buildings we use each and everyday? Our society thrives on being entertained.

The professional athletes of today will never have to worry about pension plans or social security funds. They will not have to work until they are 62 years old, struggling, trying to make it to that first Friday of the month to be paid. Most of the players today can play for only a few years and, if they manage their money well, can be set for a lifetime.

So, when we see or hear of a player complaining that the $9.9 million a year he is being paid is not enough because of other recently signed contracts, maybe we should not be so hard on him. Remember, we allow these athletes to make the millions of dollars they make because of our hunger to be entertained. These athletes are asked to perform a job in the same way that, everyday, we are asked to perform our jobs, and they are paid, just as we are paid. And – they are paid by an owner who makes a whole lot more than the highest paid athlete on the roster.