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MAKING SPORT OF US ALL
Bob Briner
December 10, 1973
It's not whether you win or lose but how you play the money game that counts in professional athletics, or so contends the author, a sports executive driven to retirement by today's attitudes
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December 10, 1973

Making Sport Of Us All

It's not whether you win or lose but how you play the money game that counts in professional athletics, or so contends the author, a sports executive driven to retirement by today's attitudes

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Or the local orphanage has asked if some players could drop by anytime in the next few days. "No, man, I don't think I can make it."

Or the team's PR man has arranged a live interview at a television studio at 6 p.m. "No, man, I don't think I can make it." And on and on.

I remember the case of a key player for World Championship Tennis in our first year of operation. To this fellow WCT had meant the difference between hustling for $20,000 a year under the table and making more than twice that as an honest pro. WCT was still deep in the red at the time. We had a chance for a real payday late in the season, but it was dependent on this player's making an appearance. This would have required him to work one day more for us than his contract called for. We had often, during the year, made schedule changes to accommodate him. Now when we asked for one more day, he gave us a flat no. Wouldn't even discuss it.

When I was general manager of the Dallas Chaparrals in the American Basketball Association, we traded for a top guard who was most unhappy because he was making only the $30,000 he had signed for. Naturally, we wanted him to be a happy player, so we tore up his existing contract and wrote a new one, which paid him at the rate of $55,000 for the balance of the season and $60,000 the year after. At the beginning of this next season, the guard came in sick and run down. We provided him with the best care, kept him on full salary and were gratified that he came back from his illness and gave us a good second half. For that year we averaged 3,000 a game in attendance and managed that only because we were promoting, hustling and discounting tickets all over Dallas. If our guard's name and ability were lining up fans at the ticket windows it was not immediately apparent to us.

Even with this in mind we were prepared to offer this bird another substantial raise, perhaps to $80,000 or even $90,000. Now, in retrospect, I know this was insane on the face of it, and the guard should have signed in blood for that money. Instead, his agent came back to us demanding that we pay him a salary which was in excess of what we had grossed at the gate for the entire previous season. Furthermore, the agent said that if we were not prepared to pay the guard more money than we made, then he would defy his option clause, jump to the NBA and fight us in court.

The most outrageous part of these demands is that the players deal only in cash on the line. The concepts of team, of spirit, of loyalty and allegiance are outmoded—and left to the suckers, to the fans. Americans who fear that there has been too much emphasis placed on victory should be relieved to know that winning or losing has become nearly irrelevant with large numbers of our major league players.

At World Championship Tennis, in the days of guarantees, some players were hardly above throwing a match so that they could go home or take a nice vacation. With the Chaparrals, dissatisfied players (especially dissatisfied players with no-cuts) simply lay down if they were not traded, or played more, or given the ball more, or whatever. I'll never forget one veteran we had who suddenly went into a mysterious sulk—just quit on us. Weeks later we found that he was upset because on one occasion the coach had designated another player to shoot a technical foul. The salary drive used to be restricted to the last few weeks of a season. Now the season is the salary drive. The pros play the statistics game for 80 games, then play basketball if they make the playoffs.

Even flat-out fixing of games has become nothing but another fact of salary negotiation—or renegotiation, as it is known these days. Tom Nissalke broke his contract with the Chaparrals, after we had given him his first crack at being a head coach, to take the post at Seattle last year. When a few SuperSonic players found Nissalke too tough for their high-salaried style, they boasted—even to referees—that they would lose enough to get him fired. It took, finally, a dumped game against the woebegone Philadelphia 76ers to get rid of Nissalke.

Renegotiation is a fancy word for blackmail, make no mistake. For example, an agent for a Chaparral player called me during the off-season and informed me that the player would be "unhappy" unless his long-term contract was renegotiated. I replied that my employers would be unhappy if I did anything less than live up to the contracts we had signed. I added that it was somewhat traditional in this country for contracts to be adhered to by both parties—whether it is another team, a player, an advertising agency, a laundry, a concessionaire or anybody else the Dallas Chaparrals did business with. Can you imagine a printer coming to me and saying that if I did not renegotiate with him, he would be capricious about delivering programs? Of course not. But this is what players do today as a matter of course. This agent laid it out very clearly to me—renegotiate an honorable contract, give the player more money or expect "an unhappy player" and "trouble" next season. It sounded like a Capone protection threat, but it was no idle bluff. The pro stiffed us that season, playing nothing but the statistics game.

Renegotiation is so much the rage (although no one ever seems to want to renegotiate himself down) that it threatens to become a parody of itself. My favorite renegotiation story involved one of the top young players in the league, who had a bonus clause that called for him to get a new $10,000 car. After one year of his old contract he phoned the general manager and said he had to renegotiate. When he got to the office he explained that the car provision had to be liberalized. "You just can't get a decent car for $10,000," he said.

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