The Root Of All Sports’ Evils??

By Phil Sheridan
Updated: January 22, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Money, as Cyndi Lauper, the sage of Queens, N.Y., once sang, money changes everything.

It goes without saying that fans react strongly when they hear that Ryan Howard asked for $18 million for 2009 in arbitration, or that Donovan McNabb wants a new contract from the Eagles even though he has two years left on his current deal, or that Elton Brand is making $80 million over five years to be a nonfactor (so far) for the 76ers.

What isn’t discussed much is why.

Why, exactly, do fans care how much professional athletes earn? Once we realize and accept that they make sick amounts of money, why do we concern ourselves with whether Howard gets $18 million or the $14 million the Phillies submitted?

He’ll either be richer than Croesus or Albert Pujols. Does it matter which? And if it does matter to you, then why?

Consider other fields of overpaid enterprise. When you watch a Tom Cruise movie, do you enjoy it more or less knowing whether he was paid a mere $20 million ( Jerry Maguire) or an obscene $75 million ( War of the Worlds; he had 20 points on that one!)? Is a Madonna record better if she got $120 million from Live Nation to make it, or if she was a relative unknown earning relative pennies for “Borderline”?

When you’re shopping for that American-made Ford pickup, are you as worried that Ford CEO Alan Mulally got more than $21 million in 2007 as you are whether Howard gets his $18 million?

Really, who strikes out more? Whose team did better last year?

Last year, when Howard was asking for “only” $10 million, and the Phillies were offering “onlier” $7 million, I wrote a column saying the team would be better off losing the arbitration case. My logic was simple enough. Howard had won rookie of the year and most valuable player awards back-to-back for relative peanuts.

He was looking for an enormous long-term deal. The Phillies could generate more goodwill with this cornerstone player – a guy we all acknowledge does everything else right, from his on-field demeanor to his off-field behavior – by throwing the hearing and considering the extra few million a payback for the previous two years.

Judging by my e-mail, you’d think I had advocated taking money directly out of your pocket and distributing it evenly among America’s crack dealers. Many readers seemed personally offended that Howard might make a few million bucks more – as if the money otherwise would fund libraries, homeless shelters or community centers.

The question, again, is why? What’s the difference to you and you and that guy over there and me?

There is a practical answer. Savvy sports fans grasp the impact one player’s salary could have on the rest of the team. If the Phillies are spending X on their payroll, then Howard’s salary could mean the difference between adding a proven righthanded bat or skimping with a prospect. Ultimately, the Phillies are limited by their revenue and not by their perceived budget.

There is a human-nature answer. We’re all fascinated by money. We check out the Forbes lists of richest people on the planet. We keep an eye on the rising number on the Powerball billboards. We watch game shows to see ordinary schlubs like our neighbors (we, ourselves, are not schlubs!) become instant millionaires.

We are equally compelled and repelled by the crazy money paid to professional athletes. It is the stuff of the American Dream, in a way, only with exponentially bigger numbers.

But if we compare athletes’ salaries to those of people who make a real difference – teachers, doctors, firefighters, diligent sports journalists – we can’t help but conclude that the world is upside-down.

There is a cynical answer. Many fans are suspicious of the teams they follow. Eagles fans are prime examples, but Phillies fans have a history of being close behind.

Is the owner of Team X willing to pay what it takes to win? It seems a bit unnerving that a fan can demand that the Phillies’ payroll reflect a will to win, while at the same time be disgusted by Howard making so much money.

After all, Howard only led Major League Baseball in home runs and RBIs for the World Series champion Phillies. Why pay him?

Incidentally, I may have been wrong last year. Howard won his arbitration and got off to an atrocious start. Maybe he was pressing, trying to prove he deserved the money, or maybe he was overly satisfied with the big payday. Either way, it took him more than half the season to get hot.

Maybe this time, it will be better if he loses his hearing and plays a little angry when the season starts. I mean, $14 million would buy a lot of angry.