From 1981 until he was forced out for, at best, boorish behavior in 2014, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made millions upon maybe tens of millions of dollars every year despite rolling out a roster that couldn’t compete with the rest of league. One reason for Sterling’s abject failure: He was renown for being cheap. His players were routinely among the lowest paid in the league, and their play reflected it.
Indeed, Sterling’s run as a team steward was one of the most remarkable in history due solely to its dreadfulness.
Yet, those of us who pay attention to sports — whether fans or media — were never anywhere near as apoplectic about what Sterling was earning, quite undeserved, as we became the past week about the unprecedented amount of money current NBA players started reaping with the advent of this summer’s hiring period for players whose contracts expired at last season’s end.
Solomon Hill, who in three seasons at Indiana averaged six points, three rebounds, an assist and a turnover per outing, got a four-year, $52 million contract from New Orleans.
Chandler Parsons, a 14-points-per-game scorer in five NBA seasons, snared a $98.5 million deal over four years from Memphis.
And Memphis gave its incumbent point guard Mike Conley, who in nine seasons has not been named an all-star, the biggest NBA contract ever — $153 million over five years.
“Call me a hater but these NBA deals are insane,” tweeted NFL running back DeAngelo Williams last Friday. “I have to google the players getting paid”
Williams added two hashtags: #nonamechecks #productiondoesntcount.
Our selective outrage, or amazement, could be because we never see the earnings of owners reported as a matter of routine like we do the salaries of players. An owner’s take is almost impossible to figure. It has to be estimated off investment, revenues and expenses and take into account off-the-court finances.
But we also don’t view pro athletes as laborers — and as Williams’s tweet suggested, athletes don’t themselves — because we’ve decided their compensation is above whatever it should be for playing a mere game.
If there is one thing the past week should have highlighted, however, it is that athletes are laborers. And like so many workers everywhere in this country, they were getting shortchanged, comparatively speaking.
Even before a 2014 $24 billion television contract kicked in, which tripled the previous deal and is said to be the fuel behind the sudden salary inflation, there were too many owners making far too much money in relation to their players. As LeBron James tweeted a few years ago when the Sacramento Kings were sold for $525 million: “So the Kings getting sold for 525M!! And the owners ain’t making no money huh? What the hell we have a [lockout] for. Get the hell out of here.”
What we started witnessing in the NBA was the kind of market correction in pay needed for most workers and the CEOs for whom they toil.
To be sure, it was a year ago next month that the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to require most publicly held companies to start annually reporting the ratio of the chief executive’s pay to that of employees. Why? Because financial statements year in and year out began revealing that the wages of those who run companies were growing at rates far faster than those who work for them, and to an extent that illustrated the truth about the existence of income inequality and laid out the ethical and moral footing for a social justice movement like #OccupyWallStreet.
The NBA didn’t, as best I can tell, have such a gross gap in compensation between ownership and their athletes. But it didn’t make sense that an owner like Sterling could make millions simply by owning a team while his players had to perform, albeit poorly, for an 82-game schedule, through injury and the other vagaries of a pro athlete’s life for probably less.
You’ve heard it said that no one tuned into a game or bought a ducat to see the referees. Well, no one flipped the channel or snared a ticket to watch ownership, either.
There long has been pay inequality or pay unfairness in sports, hence the stoppages in seasons we’ve seen over the years in all sports. We just happen to be seeing it laid bare more these days, what with all the television money on which sports float these days. For example, the U.S. women’s soccer team filed suit against the national soccer federation over the considerably lower pay it receives vis a vis the men’s team. College football and basketball are in the crosshairs of some of us in the media, some in the public and an increasing number of legislators over the billions of dollars they are raking in while continuing to provide its young athletes only room, board and tuition while coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners make hundreds of thousands dollars and millions.
Forbes reported earlier this year that the NBA made a record $5.2 billion in revenue and realized a record $900 million in operating profits in its 2015 season. Who knows how much more it made in the season that just ended? But it mirrors the U.S. economy in recent years, where corporate profits reached their highest level in 85 years, yet employee pay fell to its lowest level in more than three generations.
Somewhere under its arena’s seat cushions, the NBA over the past week found enough coins to pay more commensurately the human capital that gives it imprimatur to thrive. The Grizzlies, who play in the league’s second-smallest market, eagerly awarded two players roughly a quarter of a billion dollars over the next five years.
A Fortune analysis in 2014 of its Fortune 500 argued that those corporations, which employed 27 million workers then “could improve the economy, their bottom lines, and the lot of millions of workers by increasing the wages they pay their employees.”
The NBA got headed in the right direction the past week. The rest of the country should start catching up.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for the Post.