One objective of the striking NFL players was to narrow the salary gap between themselves and their counterparts in big league baseball and the NBA. O.K., but aren't those athletes grossly overpaid? A lot of people think so, of course, but few approach the subject from the point of view of Lois DeBakey, a professor of scientific communication at Baylor College of Medicine. In a barrage of speeches and articles that falls just short of being a crusade, DeBakey, the sister of the Houston heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, insists for some reason on comparing athletes' salaries with those of doctors.
"The constant beefing about the 'high cost of health care'...is puzzling in light of our mute acquiescence in the high cost of entertainment," DeBakey wrote earlier this year in the Houston Chronicle. "Is entertainment more vital than health? The fan who willingly shells out $50 to watch a ball game will grumble loud and long about a $50 fee for medical care. Yet the average annual income of physicians is only about $70,000, whereas the average annual salary of major league baseball players is a preposterous $250,000."
Hold it right there. First, the average incomes of doctors and big leaguers are actually $93,000 and $185,000, respectively. Second, the figure DeBakey uses for physicians' income covers semiretired part-time doctors as well as young doctors in the process of building a practice; if she had used only "major league" doctors, the average income would have been far higher. Conversely, few minor league players earn much more than $15,000. As for why even major league ballplayers should, on the average, earn more than physicians, this can be largely explained by supply and demand. Supply: There are 650 major-leaguers vs. roughly 400,000 doctors in full-time practice. Demand: Whereas a physician may typically see 25 patients a day, a player can perform in front of millions on TV and in the ball park. Also, while doctors are generally at the top of the pay scale in the health industry, baseball players often receive a surprisingly small slice of their sport's pie. Compare Steve Garvey's $333,000 salary, for example, with the $12 million or so in profits reaped annually by Dodger President Peter O'Malley and his family. All this is in addition to the brief career spans and high risk of injuries usually invoked in defense of athletes' huge salaries.
There are two important lessons to be learned here. First, when considering whether pro athletes are overpaid, it's best to forget doctors. And it's only fair to remember the owners.