As the size of professional athlete’s salaries has risen over the years, a debate has cropped up about whether or not the enormity of these salaries is entirely justified. The common opening shot fired in this discussion: “Should people be paid so much to play a game?” I’ve had this conversation with sports fans and non-sports fans alike and, frankly, I think it’s time to set the record straight.
The answer is yes. Professional athletes are paid well and that is how it should be.
Of the many reasons that professional athlete’s salaries are indeed justified, two reasons stand out as the most persuasive. First, the salaries of professional athletes represent a fair portion of the revenue that they generate for team owners (not to mention the ESPN’s of the world). Second, professional athletic careers are often very short lived and, for the most part, do not prepare players for post-sports careers.
Fairness – An Aptly Sized Piece of the Pie
The usual question of whether or not professional athletes “deserve” to make tons of money for playing a game is best seen in the context of the business of sports. The NFL and the NBA in particular are highly lucrative sports industries. The NFL alone nets billions in revenue every year ($9 billion in 2013).
If professional athletes are making “too much money” for playing games, how much money should team owners be making? Also, could leagues like the NFL and the NBA hope to make the same kind of money they do if they did not draw top talent to play on their teams?
While it’s certainly true that football and basketball are games and professional athletes are “playing games” for millions of dollars, it is also true that other people involved in the business of pro sports are making just as much from the labors of these players – if not more.
Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant are being compensated fairly for helping to make the NFL and the NBA into massively profitable enterprises.
This point was raised a few years ago when LeBron James signed a six-year contract with the Miami Heat for $110 million, making him only the 7th highest paid player in the NBA. Bleacher Report‘s Conor Volpe wrote that James is “underpaid for not only his skills on the court, but for the money he makes the Heat off of the hardwood. He’s getting paid pennies compared to how much the Heat are raking in thanks to him.” Ticket sales, merchandise sales, and television contracts all grow when superstar players come to town.
So James is not just playing a game. He kind of is the game.
Short Careers – Early Retirement
The second compelling reason that professional athlete’s high salaries are justified comes from the fact that professional sports careers are often so short. For the majority of professional athletes, careers last only a few years. Though many professional athletes were able to attend college on scholarship – and even graduate – there is serious doubt as to how much dedication to study a top-tier college athlete can muster given the considerable demands of his or her sport.
More to the point, however, is the consideration of athletics as a profession. Every sport is a discipline unto itself and, usually, a discipline that does not include translatable skills. Learning to play basketball well enough to compete in the NBA means you are not studying to be a dentist or an accountant. The sport demands absolute dedication and becomes an end unto itself.
Professional athlete’s salaries have to account for the fact that a professional athlete is only going to have a job for five years (or less) and this job does not offer any skills or training for a non-athletic career. The forced retirement that ends most athletic careers is a sobering prospect for the scholarship student who didn’t really have time to study, who has had multiple knee and shoulder surgeries before turning 30, and who has now suddenly woken up to a harsh reality after a few years of living a childhood dream.
Eric Martin is a lifelong basketball fan living in the Los Angeles area, lucky to have lived in Illinois during Jordan’s reign and in Philadelphia when Allen Iverson was in his prime.
- Bleacher Report