The ‘problem’ of outrageous sports salaries

The money involved in sports is a reflection of broader society in many ways.

Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald/AP
Little Leaguers take to the field during the opening ceremony at Satterfield Park in Athens, Georgia, March 22.

The gym did not exactly appear to be a launchpad for dreams of Olympic glory. As an Olympics reporter, I had been to American training facilities and written about the famous sports academies of China. What I saw down an anonymous street in Delhi was not that. The boxer was one of India’s better hopes for a medal at the Beijing Games. But the scene spoke of a struggle for more than athletic excellence. It spoke of a struggle simply to keep the lights on.

For a sports fan raised in the United States, a posting to India more than a decade ago was a step into another world. Despite having 1.3 billion citizens, India was accomplished at only one sport (cricket), and that happened to be one that only a dozen other countries played seriously. Even with a growing middle class, why were sports not a bigger part of Indian life?

“Our problem is Indian society just isn’t interested in sport,” the boxing coach told me in 2008. “Parents will tell their children to study and become engineers and doctors and not to waste their time on sport.”

It is safe to say that America does not have the same “problem.” Over the next 12 years, one American baseball player will be paid a cumulative salary nearing half a billion dollars. And every year, the top three U.S. sports leagues – which are also the three highest-grossing leagues in the world – collectively generate more money than Tajikistan.

Like it or not, sports are one of the many indicators of a culture’s values and priorities. And that is what this week’s cover story is about. How did America get to this point? How did we go from elite professional athletes needing summer jobs three generations ago to the lowest-paid National Basketball Association players – those who almost never step onto the court – now making nearly $1 million a year?

Actually, some U.S. professional athletes still do work second jobs. Top players in the Women’s National Basketball Association play in Europe as well as the U.S. because Europe pays better. Is that because women’s basketball creates more money there? No. It’s because many teams are the playthings of billionaire Russian oligarchs and conglomerates.

The economics of sports are a reflection of broader society in many ways. The most obvious is that when we spend gobs of money on sports, owners and athletes get rich. But the quest for gender fairness is another window on those values. Members of the U.S. men’s soccer team, which failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, make more money than those on the women’s soccer team, which is the reigning World Cup champion, because the men still generate more revenue. Is that fair? Prize money in the tennis majors, however, is equal, despite the fact that the men usually generate more money. The same is true for prize money in figure skating, though the economic gender dynamic is reversed. Is that fair?

A famous sports film once crowed “Show me the money!” But the money, it turns out, shows us something, too. 

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