In this week’s Sports Illustrated, columnist Alexander Wolff describes the various appearances by NBA players at the 2011 summer league games—the only chance for fans to see the players in action given the lockout that threatens the entire 2011-12 season. While Wolff is certainly accurate in his characterization of the summer league contests as “quintessential hoops,” it is more difficult to support his assertion that in light of these surprise appearances, the players “don’t seem as avaricious as management would like to paint them.” If NBA players are as altruistic as the article makes them out to be, then why is the upcoming season in jeopardy largely because of their reluctance to take a pay cut?
Let me say this first: Pro-athletes have every right to demand the lion’s share of their league’s revenue—particularly in the NBA, which, more than any other league, owes its popularity almost solely to its players. Take away Bird, Magic, Kareem, Jordan, Kobe, Shaq and LeBron and the NBA’s enormous global popularity and domination of the sports calendar from February through June will disappear along with them. It certainly is not unreasonable to expect that the same people who make the Association so popular would want that to be reflected in their paychecks.
Now, let’s take a look at some figures. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, players received 57 percent of basketball-related income, which totaled $3.817 billion in 2010-11. That season, total player compensation equaled $2.176 billion, and the average salary was $5.15 million. Unsurprisingly, money is at the heart of the current labor dispute, with the owners refusing to budge from their demand that player salaries be cut by more than one-third.
In most industries, asking employees to take a 30 percent pay cut is asking them to make a tremendous financial sacrifice. But professional sports aren’t most industries. When the average salary in your field is over $5 million—and every employee is guaranteed a salary no lower than $473,604 (the 2010-11 league minimum)—shutting down the company rather than taking a pay cut can only be described as the manifestation of insatiable greed. As I said, NBA players certainly have the right to expect their contributions to the league will be reflected in their compensation—but I don’t think Kobe Bryant is going to starve if his $24.8 million salary is reduced.
In July, the NBA laid off 114 employees in its league offices—11 percent of its entire workforce. Over nine percent of all Americans are currently out of work. And yet a group of millionaires are balking at the suggestion that they accept a salary reduction that reflects current economic realities.
But wait! There’s Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Chris Paul playing a late August game in Morgan State University’s Hill Field House. There’s Kevin Durant, lighting up the streets of Harlem to the tune of 66 points. These guys care so much about the fans and the game, they’re putting on free shows all over the country so their biggest supporters can still get their basketball fix! Never mind that said fans wouldn’t be in this position were it not for problems of the players’ own doing.
Certainly, there is no question that pro-athletes love their sports. Their attitudes toward the fans are another matter entirely. (It has been repeatedly suggested that the best way for Major League Baseball to recapture the excitement of its All-Star Game is to require every player on the losing team to sign autographs following the game.) So please, let’s not start acting like the players are a group of saints who have come to save the fans from the tyrannical, penny-pinching owners who want to prevent the fans from enjoying the game they love. Take a stroll through our own Bacon Field House on an average afternoon, and the odds are good that you’ll see at least one pickup game in progress. Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems people who play basketball for a living would be similarly predisposed to get together for some hoop action in their free time.
Street basketball, as Wolff observes, is sport in its most pure form. But when James Harden & Co. decides to get together and allow “kids who could never afford a ticket to an NBA game…to watch them,” it doesn’t mean they’re acting out of the goodness of their hearts. Now, if the NBPA were to announce tomorrow that its members had unanimously voted to impose a $1 million salary cap on each team, it would be easy to view the summer games as a similar gesture of selflessness. But for now, all the summer of 2011 has told us about NBA players is that they better than the owners know how to generate positive PR.