Commentary--Big bucks and red ink

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By Mike Forster

I used to take the position that a player deserves to make whatever the market will bear. If a team owner wants to pay $5 million a year for a second baseman with a career batting average of .240, that's his call.

I figure that the fans and the sponsors are picking up the tab. It's a market decision. If you can afford forty bucks for a marginal seat at the ballpark, that's your call. If the good folks at Minute Maid want to shell out naming rights for the stadium in Houston, that's swell.

Therefore, because of free enterprise, I never bought into the argument that professional athletes are getting paid way too much money for playing a kids' game. I also never bought into the mass publication of players' salaries.

Why is it of any interest to us what an athlete makes? I've heard the argument that such information is important because every time you purchase a ticket you're paying that guy's salary.

Well, every time you buy a pack of gum, you're paying the salary of the guy that runs the gum-making machine over at the Bubble Yum plant. Yet, that guy's wage isn't widely publicized.

Exactly who benefits from this level of detailed exposure? Certainly, the athletes don't wish to have the size of their paychecks out there in the public domain. I imagine many deal with scenarios such as this one:

Phone rings.

Pro athlete: "Hello?"

Voice: "It's your mother."

Pro: Oh, hi mom. What's up?

Mom: Your cousin Milton's car is on the fritz again.

Pro: Ah, that's too bad.

Mom: Too bad?

Pro: Yes. Too bad for ol' Milton.

Mom: That's all you've got to say?

Pro: Yeah. What am I supposed to do about it? I'm no mechanic.

Mom: Don't get smart with me Mister Twenty Million Dollars a Year. You send him some money this minute. I raised you better than that.

Pro: Yes ma'am.

Now, when I was in the business world, rule number one around compensation was that you did not know what your peers made. Rule number two was that you didn't know what your boss made.

Could you imagine if facts about "civilian" pay were bantered about like those of athletes? How would you like to be introduced at a meeting of your managers like this: "Now, to give an update on our latest project is Joe Schmedlap. Joe has been with our organization for the past five years. He made $32,000 last year, but didn't seem to perform as well as Cindy Swanson. Cindy, by the way, only made $21,000."

If you think that would make Joe feel bad, how about Cindy? Think she might be stopping in for a friendly chat with her boss soon?

I'll admit I'm a numbers geek. I spent most of my adult life analyzing all sorts of data. One of the reasons I'm so fond of sports is because of the quantitative components. However, the numbers that say what an athlete is paid used to hold no allure whatsoever.

That was until this week.

According to Street and Smith's "Sports Journal", the NFL recently filed court documents that detail that the league and its teams are in debt to the tune of $9 billion (yes that's a "B" you see in that figure).

Major League Baseball, prudish in comparison, is in hock for $3.1 billion.

It would seem that the mortgage/credit crisis is not confined to John Doe and Bear Stearns. If the NFL, which basically has a license to print money, can go this deeply in debt, heaven help the rest of us.

That level of collective irresponsibility should move you firmly back into the camp of being able to justly criticize player salaries. That's because it no longer is a market function. Just like the Ponzi scheme that we've seen in the real estate market, the hyper inflation of player salaries has come home to roost.

The owners aren't paying what the market will bear. They are paying whatever they can beg, borrow and steal.

My prediction is that, at some point, Joe Sixpack's tax dollar will help bail out the pro leagues, just as it is currently saving the investment banks. I hope we all enjoyed the party. The hangover is going to be brutal.