THE MONEY GAME
Making Sport of Us All (Dec. 10) by Bob Briner seems destined to rank as one of the most important articles SI has ever published, for it brings to light a subject vital to the development of every young child: hero worship.
How can a kid growing up today idolize a pro basketball player who has a multimillion-dollar contract but sits on the bench because he has a no-cut clause? I believe high school and college athletics will soon surpass professional sports in spectator appeal. It is good to see a boy want to pattern his life after a local high school hero, whom he can see and talk to and get tips from. And there is nothing better than watching a crowd react at a college game because it knows the players well, knows them as human beings and knows that it will get a smile, not a sneer, in return after the game. Professional sports are about to self-destruct. They've taken the happiness out of their own games.
Your article on the money game in professional sports was long overdue. I have argued with friends over the last several years as to whether or not professional team owners are making profits. As Bob Briner points out, some of the players' salary demands exceed paid attendance. Here in San Diego, 3,200 is the seating capacity at Golden Hall where the basketball Conquistadors play. Filling this arena every game could not even pay Coach Wilt Chamberlain's salary. It is true that athletes have a limited playing career, but why should these players become instantly wealthy? Why should contract renegotiation be a one-way street?
It is a very short-run viewpoint for players and their agents to milk owners—and fans—for every cent. Professional sports seem doomed to extinction before too long unless this trend is halted.
Bob Briner's attempt at fixing blame on the owners for destroying sports through leniency to players is directed at the right party, but for the wrong reasons.
It would have been impossible for Briner to have written this piece 15 years ago, when the owners of the major sports maintained a monopoly on their product, and when players were obliged to perform for what their owners offered. Players had no alternative, as no counteroffer was forthcoming from any other quarter. With the rise of the American Football League (and sister leagues in basketball and hockey), competitive bidding developed among owners for the services of the same athlete, with a concomitant wage spiral.
The lure of TV money, an expanded leisure market, the discovery that losses incurred in a sports venture could be written off against profits in other investments for tax purposes—these factors account for the influx of capital into the sports industry. New leagues were created by entrepreneurs to break the monopoly of entrepreneurs. However, now that the reality of laissez-faire has broken the monopoly at the bargaining table, Briner blames...the athlete.
This is not the place to debunk the simplistic and self-serving myths of the Manchester school of economics (athletes hustle only when they are hungry; workers produce only when they are paid subsistence wages). But what is relevant is that Briner's proposal of salary cuts for motivation's sake echoes arguments used historically by the bourgeoisie, i.e., high wages lead to boondoggling and wreck free enterprise.
Mr. Briner would have been a bright young theorist at the turn of the 19th century; as his ideas apply to sports today, they can only provide the owners with a rationale for breaking players' associations and for stripping professional athletes of their capacity to bargain. Briner fails to see that the workings of the free enterprise system, when actually adopted by the system's proponents, produce the very conditions he finds deplorable.
New York City
Bob Briner does not realize that the behavior of athletes mirrors the behavior they see in the rest of society. Today the dominant goal is getting as much as you can and the heck with everybody else, so why should athletes be different? Are they somehow immune to the forces that influence all of the rest of us?