They Earn It

With a potential NBA lockout over collective bargaining looming a little more than a year away, the players union remains steadfast against league demands to shorten contracts, cut salaries, eliminate guarantees and snatch a far greater percentage of basketball-related income. Predictably, one sportswriter recently brayed about players who "feign outrage at any concessions they are asked to make."

Predictably, because as former Sports Illustrated columnist Steve Rushin once wrote in a moment of exemplary candor, sportswriters -- expendable and largely interchangeable -- are the same people who "while settling into a free front-row seat, while complaining about the complimentary meal just devoured -- can carp at length about an athlete's sense of entitlement. Jock-sniffing, bellhop-stiffing know-it-alls, we are accountable to no one, while holding everyone accountable to us."

On the other hand, I've heard lots of well-considered comments from fans who think player salaries are obscenely high and shouldn't be guaranteed. So please bear with me while I offer a few points to consider.

Playing professional sports requires stubborn persistence and an enormous, nearly life-encompassing dedication. Of the major ones, basketball is arguably the hardest in which to succeed and the hardest (ok, maybe football) in which to sustain a career of any duration.

On Planet Earth, the popularity of basketball is exceeded only by soccer, a sport whose appeal also derives as much from its accessibility as its innate beauty. Building a basketball court is relatively simple: pouring concrete and putting up a hoop in a park or playground or a driveway seldom breaks the bank. Still, to be truly great at hoops - to be NBA-worthy -- a player needs exceptional talent. The marquee names combine peerless skills and athleticism.

NBA teams have the smallest rosters in pro sports, and NBA players, one of the shortest shelf lives. Most pros don't last five seasons. Less than 25 percent play beyond their 30th birthday. Yet each year a few handfuls of hopefuls get invited to the NBA Draft and are shown on TV hugging their families, high-fiving David Stern and getting crowned with the cap of their new teams. Many of these young men come from disadvantaged backgrounds. By overcoming the obstacles of their upbringing, they have beaten the odds and earned a shot at The Show.

But the shot is often a long shot. Fewer than a quarter of all second-round picks get offered a second NBA contract. And many first-round picks don't get beyond their rookie deals, either. For every LeBron James, there are hundreds of players who stop by the NBA for a cup of Gatorade and then fade into obscurity. Thousands more never even get to parse the fine print of an NBA player agreement.

Compare NBA players to actors, talk show hosts and rock stars. Clooney and Seinfeld. Oprah and Letterman. Madonna and Bono. The incomes of these celebrities dwarf those of the greatest pros, and their careers are considerably longer.

The only reason player salaries are in the same arena is the free market. In this country, people earn what they're worth, or at least what they're perceived to be worth. We don't begrudge Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs the chance to capitalize on capitalism. Why should we treat basketball players any differently? Sure, they want their contracts to be guaranteed - at any moment, an injury or a coach's whim could end their careers.

Instead of railing against player salaries, outraged fans would be wise to train their anger on investment bankers, the folks who nearly scuttled the economy only to be bailed out by us taxpayers. Exactly what talent is required to make multi-million dollar bonuses while millions of unemployed citizens are losing their homes? A gift for cooking the books, perhaps, or for screwing their investors and the American people. Save your fury for those fat cats.

One final thought: Over the last 15 years, the players have made significant concessions in the interests of the long-term health of the NBA. I've always championed a minimum wage, and always been opposed to a maximum one. A decade ago, over my objections, the players agreed to set individual salary caps. This compromise has cost stars like James, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of their careers. In no other sport have players agreed to such a sacrifice. Even in pro hockey - the ultimate niche sport in the U.S. - players haven't surrendered as much.

During those 15 years, the salaries of NBA coaches has soared, though not as majestically as Michael Jordan once did. The paychecks of Phil Jackson and Pat Riley nearly equal those of James and Bryant. And on a guaranteed basis, the pacts of James (three years, $60 million) and Bryant (seven years, $136 million) pale beside those of Alex Rodriguez (10 years, $275 million), Derek Jeter (10 years, $189 million) and Mark Teixeira (eight years, $180 million). And these figures don't include the 10% "commission" that James, Bryant and every other NBA player is currently obligated to put in escrow and give back to the owners.

No doubt in a free market the contracts of every starter in last Sunday's NBA All-Star game would trump A-Rod's. More than any individual baseball player, those NBA standouts fill stands, sell merchandise worldwide and directly affect the outcome of games. "Fans come out to see NBA players, not NBA owners," says the eminent trainer Darrell Spencer. "The owners are just faces in luxury boxes. The players influence everything from the mood of their city to the state of the local economy. The players deserve all the loot they can get." And yet their unprecedented salary cap concessions often go unacknowledged and unappreciated.

NBA players shouldn't have to justify their wages. They make money the old-fashioned way.