Our sports headlines are pretty depressing right now. As much of the country struggles financially, the question of 'How much money is enough?' is being asked repeatedly by fans of professional sports. Some recent events in this cold, mercenary world make me wonder how long those fans will put up with the exorbitance that has grown out of control. In a week when Bill Russell and Stan Musial (Hall of Fame athletes and better people) received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, we seem to be inundated with stories of how selfish many professional athletes and owners have become.
We’ll start in St. Louis, where slugger Albert Pujols has Cardinals followers questioning the man they have adored for a decade. Has ‘El Hombre’ become ‘El Codicioso’? The amount of money Pujols turned down over the winter was just obscene, and he has become a distraction for his team this season. He probably can get more cash (that his great-great grandkids won’t be able to spend) on the open market, but it would be terrible for the game and his legacy if Pujols did not finish his career in the Gateway City.
The Pujols drama follows an MLB offseason where competitive teams like Tampa Bay and San Diego were gutted for financial reasons. Fans in those cities become disengaged from the game as players like Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena and Adrian Gonzalez move on to mega-markets like Boston, New York and Chicago.
The same sad migration took place in the NBA last summer, although it was more selfish than money-related. Players afraid to be “the man” with the team that drafted them moved on to places where they could join forces. LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire have left franchises in Cleveland, Toronto and Phoenix either struggling or destitute. The same will probably happen in Denver and New Orleans when Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul end up as Knicks. All of these players “wanna be like Mike”, but Jordan didn’t run off scared to the Pistons after six years in the Association.
As MLB and the NBA constantly frustrate fans with their ‘big vs. small market’ caste systems, the one labor agreement that has dominated for two decades - the NFL salary cap and non-guaranteed contracts – is now up for debate. Instead of continuing the juggernaut of ratings and cash, NFL millionaires and mega-millionaires are going to bicker on how to divide up a multi-billion dollar pie. Hopefully both sides come to their senses and realize how pointless it would be to have a work stoppage.
The professional leagues seem to assume that fans will continue to spend money, but you have to wonder when the limit will arrive for Joe Q. Public. The humility and class of both Russell and Musial, unfortunately, serve a sad reminder of just how far removed many modern athletes are from their mainstream, working-class fans. Kudos to those two men, and to any current athlete who chooses to emulate them.