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FACT: Pro athletes are not overpaid.
The cry rings down from the stands so often that for many players it has become an epitaph: "Ya overpaid bum, ya!" Overdue, maybe. Overbearing, sometimes. Overexposed, probably. But overpaid, no. Next time a fan is moved to carp about athletes' high salaries, he might put himself in the spikes of Rollie Fingers and ponder what he would have done had he been offered a fortune for throwing a ball around in the sun.
Says Fingers, "Was I supposed to tell the Padres, 'No, I won't take it'? It's not my fault they gave me a million six. The owners are cutting their own throats. The smart ones are the players. They keep quiet and take the money."
Like any rare commodity, the value of an athlete's services is determined by the price he commands on the open market. Who is to say that Larry Hisle is or is not worth $525,833.33 a year? The Milwaukee Brewers, that's who, because they chose to award Hisle the richest contract (six-year, $3.1-million) in the 1977 free-agent draft. They could have passed, of course, but the kind of free agents who can make a team a contender are anything but free.
There is a name for the uproarious state of affairs in pro sports. It is called free enterprise. And while the owners try to decide whether the game can afford the high price that free enterprise exacts, almost to a man they echo the sentiment of Jack Steadman, president of the Kansas City Chiefs, "Literally, owners in professional sports are their own worst enemies."
But near-unanimity of opinion among owners does not count for much, because it only takes one of them—a George Steinbrenner, for example—to bust things wide open and prompt the next questions: Is Hisle overpaid? Compared to whom? A teacher? A cop? Jimmy Carter? The Fonz? Rod Carew? Those are qualitative questions, but sports lives by quantitative answers, such as the Steinbrennerian theory that goes, "If a rock singer is worth $200,000 for a night, a player is worth $200,000 for a season."
Long gone are the days when the Cleveland Indians could sign a Bob Feller for a bonus of a dollar bill and an autographed baseball. The old handshake deals and the four-page "standard players' contract" have been replaced in many cases by 20 pages of fine print detailing everything from suites and water beds while on the road to limousine service to and from airports. Every clause is a crisis, including one in which a millionaire player wanted the Knicks to spring for the 75¢ bridge tolls he pays when driving to work.
Salaries and fringies have multiplied almost faster than the mind can comprehend. "When I first came into football in 1953," says Ram owner Carroll Rosenbloom, "it was not a business, it was a fun thing. My payroll might have been a quarter of a million. Today you're paying a player that much—one player."
David Thompson, one of 30 NBA players earning more than $250,000 a season, could have bought five NBA teams 20 years ago with the $800,000 he makes. Only five years ago, O. J. Simpson's $733,358 would have paid the wages of 22 players plus a Lithuanian placekicker. NBA salaries have increased 700% in the past decade; baseball wages have more than doubled in the past five years—and the fever is spreading. "Players who did nothing last year while making $25,000 to $30,000 are asking $80,000 to $90,000 this year," says Padre boss Ray Kroc. "What will they ask for if they ever do anything?"
The moon, with an option to renegotiate, if the average salary levels keep rising at the same rate that they have over the past 10 years: