Is there a correct way to fight over money?
The sports arena is unlike other American workplaces, part business and part cathedral. Worshippers fill this church on what feels like high holidays, praising, believing, Tebowing, shouting to the heavens. But here come the jangling of the collection plates again and again, interrupting the spiritual connection to remind us there is always business to be done. It is all merely entertainment, obviously, but that combination -- part business, part cathedral -- makes what are supposed to be fun and games feel more hostile sometimes. The gulf between athletes and the fans who pay them is paved with money and resentment, this merging of emotions and economics making sports feel differently than the rest of entertainment.
Paying customers don't get angry with musicians, comedians or movie stars for how rich they get for doing something silly and fun. Ever hear anyone say Bono, Chris Rock or Will Smith are overpaid? Anyone even know what they earn? You make us feel good and sway in your talented grasp, we don't begrudge you your dollars ... unless you happen to work in sports.
Over here, basketball's owners and players can't agree how to split billions. Over there, St. Louis builds a statue for champion Albert Pujols while wondering how many hundreds of millions it is going to take to keep him from leaving. Those numbers don't make any sense to the hard-working fan who comes home from work dirty and either can't afford to go to the game or is hurt by the cost of parking and refreshments while at it. But the numbers are distributed by sports media in a way that Rolling Stone Magazine doesn't cover the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger's earnings less public than Chad Henne's. So there's no use making the point, as local basketball player James Jones does, that Dwyane Wade is actually vastly underpaid , his value three or four times what he earns in salary b" and far more than that if he happened to have a stronger union and played in a truly open market like baseball's. (Alas, basketball's union is so flimsy that a few years ago the sport changed the actual basketball, a fairly important piece of equipment, without even consulting the players.)
THE RUNNING BACKS
But let's put this in more empathetic terms. Let's make it the kind of money more people can understand. And let's make the job painful. Let's make the career lifespan short, too. Let's talk about running backs.
The average NFL career is about three years. Running backs get used up as fast as iPhone batteries and have to do their earning quickly because of it. An annual salary of half a million dollars -- what Houston's Arian Foster, Chicago's Matt Forte and Cleveland's Peyton Hillis earn -- is very nice in most, less violent workplaces but isn't going to make you very wealthy if you have to stretch a few years of earning over the next three decades as you limp toward retirement age. Running backs and boxers are the only two positions anywhere in sport where people quit in their prime, walking away from glory and applause and earning early. Why? Because it really, really hurts. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Robert Smith, Tiki Barber and Ricky Williams leave early; quarterbacks don't.
Foster, Forte and Hillis are handling their similar situations very differently. They are all underpaid, but here's the danger in rectifying that if you are ownership: Chris Johnson was underpaid like that last year. He had rushed for more yards over the previous three seasons than any back in the league. And he was making $800,000. So he held out, making a public mess. And the Titans made him the highest paid running back ever, even though he had two years left on his contract, with $30 million guaranteed. And now, very suddenly, he stinks, seven games after being great. He was booed by fans in Week 2, a victory no less. He's 34th in the league in rushing, behind Delone Carter, Jackie Battle and Cam Newton. He was benched in the fourth quarter last week. Fans are worried that he rather literally cashed in, treating the paycheck as the finish line instead of a starting point, as many young men who come from poverty might. Fred Taylor, who ended up playing more than a decade in the league and rushed for almost 12,000 yards, admits that his initial intent coming out of impoverished Belle Glade was just to wreck his body for three years, take the money and then quit. He fell in love with football along the way. Not everyone does.
Foster earns $525,000. No signing bonus. He is the league's best value. And people ask him all the time why he doesn't ask for a bigger contract the way Forte and Hillis have. He reminds them that his mother once had to sell her wedding ring to get the $30 to feed a family of five.
"That's really where my motivation comes from, that survival," he says. "Why am I not asking for a big contract? Because I get paid a lot of money. I'm in the top five percent of America to play a game I love. It is really like asking for the world when I already have it. My mother is the root of that."
Perfect attitude, right? Exactly what any fan wants to hear. But you can understand the positions of Forte and Hillis, too. Forte has groused that the Bears are grinding him to pulp, wrecking his body without paying him properly, eating up his prime, diminishing his future earning power. And he is right. He earns $600,000, the minimum for a player of his service time. It is smart business by the Bears, though cold. Makes a human being feel like he is merely a commodity, which he kind of is in this world.
Look at the practice known as "oversigning" in college, prevalent at schools like Alabama, for example. Never mind all that sis-boom-bah nonsense about education. Nick Saban is running a business factory. So scholarships that are supposed to be for four years are really only for one if you don't perform for him. Very few schools give up on kids as quickly or as much as Alabama, top five nationally in oversigning. It gives Saban a significant recruiting advantage, expanding his margin for error, allowing him to get the equivalent of five recruiting classes in a four-year span when other schools are getting four. The poor kid who doesn't perform gets sent back to poverty.
The pros are cutthroat that way, too, though the dollars are different. Look at what the Dolphins did to lineman Vernon Carey, a hometown kid. After the lockout, just before the season began, they told him to take a pay cut or get released. They knew most teams had their rosters set. They knew Carey wouldn't have many job options even at a reduced salary. So they made the right business move but the wrong human move. Can't blame them for using their leverage. But would you blame Carey if he put aside his professionalism and didn't give that little extra for his bosses going forward?
USING HIS LEVERAGE
Which brings us to Hillis. He is being cold and cutthroat right back, using his leverage. It is ugly, and it is business. One of the most violent men in the league, and one of the toughest, sat out because of strep throat on his agent's advice, and he keeps sitting out, while being paid, while his center plays through appendicitis and almost everyone questions his mystery ailments. He is playing for $567,000, with a signing bonus of just $49,800. The Browns were very good at rushing with him; they are just about the worst in the league without him. Risky strategy? Not really. Safe, actually. He, unlike Forte, is proving his worth by not playing. And he isn't risking tearing knee ligament by being abused the way Forte is. NFL contracts don't mean very much, requiring only loyalty from the player. A team can rip up that contract whenever it pleases and let go of the player. But Hillis is making so little that he's daring the Browns to cut him and let him go free. He knows coaches will line up like housewives taking numbers at a deli line to throw millions at him.
Foster's attitude is the one fans prefer b" just shut up, be humble and grateful and play.
But what would you do?
If what you did for a living hurt, your time to earn was short, and everyone in and around your workplace knew you were underpaid?
Would you be quiet?