Professional Athlete Salaries: Then and Now


By ALEC HUDSONSTAFF WRITER

There is a common argument in American culture that the high salaries now given to professional athletes have tarnished athletics.

From Tiger Woods to Aaron Rodgers, athletes are now multi-millionaires who are successful in their various sports and serve as spokesmen and spokeswomen for products and services.

As professional athletes have become wealthier, the wages of average American citizens continue to be stagnant. The debate then arises whether it is fair to pay an athlete millions of dollars in salaries while teachers, police, and other working citizens receive a fraction of that in their own salaries.

There are those with strong opinions about the income difference between athletes and average workers. Sophomore Alisha Russell explained her misgivings about the high salaries of professionals.

“These athletes are playing a game. I don’t mean to belittle the hard work, talent, and time that goes into achieving the dream of being a professional athlete, but they, like movie stars, are providing entertainment. And I don’t think that warrants a million dollar salary,” Russell said.

Has this been the trend of professional athletics for years or is this a newer phenomenon?

Senior and sports follower Jeffrey Elam argues that because athletic abilities are so rare teams are willing to pay them in high amounts for those abilities.

“A combination of increased TV sports viewers and increased product endorsement has made athletes much wealthier. The NFL is a billion dollar industry now,” Elam said.

James Graham Brown Professor of Economics Dr. Bruce Johnson argued that higher demand for sports viewership is one of two major factors, the other being changes in the contracts of sport teams.

“For many decades team owners conspired to constrain player salaries through the adoption of a reserve clause. Leagues required owners to insert language in every player contract ‘reserving’ that player for that team,” Johnson said.

“Beginning in the 1970s the reserve clause was overturned in all the major sports leagues, giving players much greater bargaining power. Salaries rose rapidly because, despite the owners’ pleading poverty, they all knew that players produced much higher revenue for teams than they were getting paid,” Johnson said.

While this does explain the phenomenon of higher salaries, it doesn’t answer the question of whether such salaries are justified.

Johnson justifies the salaries because they are simply the products of the market system.

“The market for players is highly competitive. Professional athletes possess unusually rare talents that produce huge revenues for teams. In a competitive labor market, the result is that players will be able to extract much of the revenue they produce for teams. Like it or not, that’s the way markets works,” Johnson said.

If we are to question the high salaries of professional athletes who make significantly more than the average worker, the questioning cannot be leveled at the players but at the system that creates such profit and wealth. This is a system that we choose to take part in every time we watch an Olympic sport, an NFL playoff, or a Yankees game.

Our consumerist culture values athletic talent so much that it allows for people willing to pay hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to view men and women compete for entertainment and love of the game.

Thus the reality of high salaries in sports will not change as long as the demand exists.

“As long as the demand for sports remains high and as long as the teams bid against each other, player salaries will remain high. If the popularity of sports drops, so will salaries,” Johnson said.

 


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