Overpaid athletes? It's fans that make them so

Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

rguably the easiest thing in the world to do, with the possible exception of pulling the covers over our heads in the morning, is to rail against others who make way more money than they deserve and, worse, don't work nearly as hard as we do.

Nowhere do we see this phenomenon so clearly at work as in sports.

Talk about obscenely and grossly overpaid. Forbes magazine has reported that Michael Jordan made the most money of any athlete in a single year, $78.3 million, more than half of it in endorsements. Three questions: How does Forbes know? Is it really secure in its numbers? And does anybody know save Michael Jordan - or perhaps Michael Jackson or Oprah Winfrey - how much $78.3 mil really is?

Outfielder Bernie Williams of the Yankees and catcher Mike Piazza of the Mets each make about $90 million over seven years. Albert Belle, perhaps baseball's most misbehaved player (six suspensions), gets $65 million over five years to play for the Orioles. For this, he thinks he will be able to improve his deportment.

The average hockey goalie, for puck's sake, is making more than $1.3 mil per frosty season.

Guess what? These guys are underpaid.

Ditto every other professional athlete. In a just world, the case easily can be made that Jordan, when he was playing, should have hauled in closer to $500 mil annually, or a lot more. Multiply every pro salary by 10 and they all remain bargains worthy of Filene's Basement.

The reasons are simple. These athletes have skills, amazing skills, that are incredibly rare. They do things routinely that we can't do in our dreams. Look and marvel at Tiger Woods, Pete Sampras, Wayne Gretzky, Barry Sanders, Dennis Rodman. Well, OK, marvel at four of the five.

When there is only one or possibly just a few of a kind, the worth is incalculable. That's why it does no good, ultimately, to insure a Picasso or Monet. After all, we want the paintings, not the cash. Deep in your honest heart, what was Joe DiMaggio's value to baseball and was he ever fairly compensated? Chris Evert earned millions, a pittance compared with her contributions to tennis.

So the shame is when the Dallas Morning News and Associated Press report that 317 baseball players earn $1 million or more this year. Why so few? Not fair.

Conversely, almost all the rest of us have no special skill. Or, at the most, we have skills that easily are replicated. It's true that sometimes we get to thinking our office can't run without us. Then we leave, and it runs fine.

Latest figures show there are nearly 3 million cashiers in the country, making an average of $11,388 a year. (That sounds about right for the skill involved.) Same for office clerks who average about $18,500. There are almost 4.5 million handlers, equipment cleaners, helpers, and laborers; they make $15,600.

Further bolstering the case for athletes is that we, as a society, put value on sports. Can't pay the athletes like this if we don't watch. If people really liked opera, instead of just pretending to, sopranos and baritones would be high on various Forbes's lists.

Yup, a free and open market is a wondrous thing. The National Education Association says the average teacher makes $38,611 a year. Many grouse this isn't enough considering we entrust our 45 million public-school students to them daily. But it must be or else we'd pay them more. Sacramento, Calif., tries to hire police officers for as low as $23,904 a year, a plumber in the US averages $27,000, a long-haul trucker $33,580, a firefighter in the Northwest starts around $36,000, a lawyer with no specialty averages $69,804, a doctor $150,000.

Who among these can be replaced with no sweat? All of them. (Stunning, but even a newspaper columnist could be replaced. Doubtful, of course, but remotely possible.) However, replacing Mark McGwire can't happen since only one was minted.

Make out your checks to Star Athletes Miserably Underpaid Inc., Mike Piazza, Treasurer. Please be generous. They're counting on you. Thank you.

*Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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