I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans. I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months. Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.
During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio. Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues? While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.
Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.” Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010. What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.
Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second. When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.
While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game. After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary. Is this evidence that something is out of whack?
Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary. Consider Shakespeare as an example. Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated. His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education. To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.
In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery. Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills. Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius. Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?
Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:
Calvin Johnson in action: