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The Rise Of The Athletic Class

J.J. Watt is using the platform afforded to him to raise money and supplies for Hurricane Harvey relief.
Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, have established that Sports shall not be mixed with Politics. The peanut butter is not supposed to be mixed with the jelly. But in today’s current climate, the overlap of those Venn diagram circles is getting larger by the day.

It is our voracious, insatiable need for sports that has created this monster. We have placed sports in such high regard, moreso than doctors, nurses, teachers, and other professions that help society on a daily basis, that the athletes themselves are now perched on these impossibly high pedestals. Our consumption of sports in-person and our consumption of sports via TV and computer have led rights fees for these leagues to skyrocket.

As per this 2016 article from Time, the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company earns $12.2M per year. To compare, here’s the average salaries in the 2016-17 season for each of the four major North American sports (from Forbes):

  • NBA — $6.2M (Lebron James highest at $31M)
  • MLB — $4.4M (Clayton Kershaw highest at $32M)
  • NHL — $2.9M (Anze Kopitar highest at $14M)
  • NFL — $2.1M (Drew Brees highest at $31.5M)

So the average player in each of these four sports is like a mid-tier CEO, with the peak players (aside from Kopitar) all 2.5 times more than an average bloated CEO salary. In our society, there’s Upper Class, Middle Class, and Lower Class. I posit that there’s now a fourth class — the Athletic Class. They’re as rich as the 1% of the Upper Class, but with their wealth being due to their athletic prowess and not anything that earnestly contributes to society.

As a point of reference, the Pirates offered Barry Bonds a 5 year/$25M deal after the 1992 season to stay with the team. He turned it down and signed with the Giants for 6 years/$43M. Adjusting for inflation over these past 25 years, that 6 yr/$43M deal would be worth $74.75M. So essentially Barry Bonds, the best player in the game, would be worth about $12.5M today in 1992 money. As you can see from above, MLB salaries have far outstripped inflation by a factor of 2.5. This is due to the massive influx of TV money into the game.

Because there’s all this money coming into the game and salaries have ballooned, the cost of tickets has risen as well, but thankfully not to such an alarming degree. The diehard fan keeps getting displaced further and further away from the action by the corporate ticket holders in the prime seating locations. All that ticket revenue, coupled with the TV monies, gets redistributed to the players, resulting in their ridiculously high salaries.

Long ago I gave up trying to equate athlete salaries to “real world” salaries. They’re entertainers that work for large corporate entities, no different than actors with movie studios. But with all the importance we’ve bestowed to athletes by our fawning over their every move, obsessing over their movement in the trade and free agent markets, and living and dying with our teams on a game-to-game basis, we have to expect them to have opinions on certain issues.

You can’t give someone a platform and a microphone and expect them to stay silent. The leagues all require media availability for players in order to feed the sports network machines. You can only ask Mike Tomlin about a Cover-2 scheme so many different ways before he’s going to say something not related to football. The world is not a genteel place right now — race relations are at their lowest point since the late 1960’s. The United States has been in a constant state of war since 2001. Sports are meant to be an escape from the real world, but when military vets like Alejandro Villanueva are on the Steelers and prominent black athletes like Adam Jones are targeted with racial slurs, the real world starts to seep into the sports world. The walls are further broken down when Donald Trump ridiculously interjects himself into the NFL’s business, like he did last weekend (and continues to do).

Even if you assume that between taxes and agent fees the athletes are giving up 40% of their salaries, they are all left with gobs and gobs of money. Aside from the idiots that blow it on drugs, cars, and entourages, it should be more money than any reasonable person could spend in 10 lifetimes. Generations of families should be set up. But what exactly are they doing with all this money?

Now we’re seeing that some of the athletes are being activists with it. They’re donating to various charities that appeal to them, like how Colin Kaepernick has given $1M to various charities, pledging $100,000 per month for 10 months. Lebron James is in the process of building a school, from the ground up, to give inner city kids in Akron a fresh start. James has also pledged scholarships for these kids in the I Promise School to the University of Akron, so that they can dream of going to college one day. Perhaps those kids will be doctors, engineers, nurses, and other professions that this world truly needs.

Most athletes of some renown have foundations or charities, with the lion share of them related to children. That is excellent and I applaud that. But when you start to see players donate large, significant sums of money, like J.J. Watt donating $100,000 of his own money to Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston (the overall social media-infused fundraising effort by Watt raised $37M) or Carlos Beltran donating $1M of his own money to help rebuild Puerto Rico, you see how change is starting to be effected on a larger scale.

So if a Steeler, Pirate, or Penguin stands or kneels for the national anthem, we all need to realize that we have empowered them to have opinions outside of the field, diamond, and rink by our course of financial actions over these last couple of decades. The year 2017 may have been the tipping point for when it was no longer possible to “stick to sports”. It’s probably going to be impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

1 Comment on The Rise Of The Athletic Class

  1. I don’t have a problem with anyone, athlete or other having and a opinion or protesting. Colin Kaepernick and the others all chose the absolute WORST time to do it… during the Star Spangled Banner than is a moment to pause an reflect on what others have done to make this country what it is today… not to kneel and call attention to an issue that you could talk about in interviews more than a “regular Joe” could. Or take a knee before the anthem, then stand for it. Kneel after the game.. kneel during every interview. Do NOT disrespect Old Glory and the Men and women who have given so much to defend this Country.

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