Striking players justified in wanting more than pro football rewards them

Here we go again. Highly paid athletes go on strike, and the voice of the green-eyed monster is heard throughout the land.

''How can these guys do it?'' goes the lament as the National Football League player strike moves into its second week. ''Here they are enjoying everybody's fantasy - playing a kids' game and getting big money for it - and they're still not satisfied! How greedy can they get? How much more do they want?''

Taken out of context, the questions are reasonable. We all recognize the absurdity of paying $100,000, $300,000, even $500,000 or more to someone whose only marketable skill consists of the ability to throw, kick, catch, or run with a ball - or worse yet, to somebody who just happens to be big and strong enough to spend a a couple of hours every Sunday pushing other big, strong guys around.

But let's keep the questions in context. Let's concede, as everyone does today, that pro sports are big business, and are part of the entertainment industry. Then lets look at the amount of revenue generated; who generates that revenue; and how well football players are compensated compared to their counterparts in other sports.

No reasonable person thinks salaries in pro sports today make any sense in relation to the importance of the job. Of course it's galling that athletes get so much more than those who perform truly worthwhile tasks. And it's human nature for a person earning $20,000, or $30,000 a year to have difficulty sympathizing with one making 10 times that much. But all of this is totally irrelevant to the issue.

Certainly a more sensible society would allocate its funds differently. Then there would be no problem, because we wouldn't be talking in terms of billions of dollars for something as insignificant as pro football.

We are talking in billions, though. The NFL's new five-year television contract alone is for $2.1 billion. And although TV now generates the lion's share of revenue, there's a lot more money out there in ticket sales, concessions, parking, and other income.

The money is there, all right. Even the owners admit that. So the only question left is how much the players are entitled to. And the best way to answer this one is to ask when was the last time anyone bought a ticket or turned on his TV set to watch an owner clip his coupons or soak up a few rays on his yacht.

The principle that those putting on the show are entitled to a good-sized chunk of the profits is accepted without question by the public in all other segments of the entertainment industry. In fact the incomes of TV and movie stars make those of even the highest paid athletes look like coolie wages by comparison. And pro football players are far from the highest paid athletes.

The generally-accepted average NFL salary figure of $83,000 is only about half that of a major league baseball player, and even further below what the average National Basketball League player receives.

Furthermore, all such averages are very misleading. All it takes is a little elementary school math to tell us that if 10 players have an average salary of $ 83,000, and they include a couple of stars making, say, $250,000 and $180,000, the other eight are already down to $50,000 apiece. Not bad, but not quite as astronomical as the owners would like us to believe. Remember, too, that these are professionals at the top of their field and that this field is one of high injury risk and an average career of less than five years.

Owners are entitled to substantial profits, of course. They have high expenses, and they risk a lot of capital. But they get those profits - as even they don't deny. And given the overall financial picture, it is obvious that for a long time now the players have been grossly underpaid in terms of revenue produced, and also in comparison with the salaries of other pro athletes. How can anyone blame them for finally trying to rectify this situation?

Not too many thinking people do. But the way the players went about it did upset a lot of folks in the beginning - especially their initial demand that 55 percent of the league's gross revenues be allocated for salaries.

Indeed, this proposal does sound a bit like socialism. But in defense of the demand, the players' chief negotiator, Ed Garvey, has pointed out that the NFL's unusual share-the-wealth TV structure is in itself a form of ''corporate socialism.'' Under this system, the TV money is split evenly among the 28 teams. The gate receipt formula, too, is closer to an even split than in most other sports.

Thus the difference in potential income between a winner and a loser is far less than in other sports, where home attendance and individual TV revenue are the big moneymakers. As the players see it, the absence of a truly big financial incentive to win makes the owners less likely to voluntarily spend the same sort of money as those in other sports do in hopes of producing a championship team.

The union decided to fight fire with fire and adopted its own ''share-the-wealth'' plan. That proposal has now been dropped, but still at issue is the question of where the money used for salaries should come from.

The latest player demand seeks $1.6 billion in salary and benefits over a four-year period, with a stipulation that the owners use 50 percent of their TV revenues to help finance the package. Management has countered by offering the same total amount, but for five years rather than four. And for obvious reasons the owners want to keep away from contract language that sets any precedents about giving the players half the TV revenue.

There are also other questions, such as free agency (the players want it after three years) and a player proposal that some sort of pay scales be set up based on the position played and the number of years of service.

These issues look negotiable. Indeed, it's pretty much your basic labor-management dispute, with interest so high only because the ''laborers'' happen to be public figures.

Undoubtedly each side will give a bit and a settlement will eventually be reached - just as it is in most strikes. When this happens and the players wind up with a contract a bit better than the one they would have had without a strike, that will be a typical solution. And anyone who thinks they shouldn't have battled for this just hasn't been paying much attention to what's been going on the last few years at the gate, in terms of TV revenue, and in the salary scales for other pro sports.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.