Column: In sports there's a Rolex for everyone

October 5, 2011 - 6:55 PM
NBA Labor Basketball

NBA Commissioner David Stern, right, listens as deputy commissioner Adam Silver speaks during a news conference following NBA labor talks meeting between basketball players and owners on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The big news in golf Wednesday was that Tiger Woods finally landed a contract with a major sponsor, something that had to be a major relief to the man once known as the world's greatest golfer. Every little bit helps, especially when you're used to making $100 million a year and there are mortgage payments to be made on the new mansion in Florida.

While Woods got his from Rolex, the news wasn't quite so good in the NBA, where the preseason is now history and both sides seem resigned to a regular season that may not to begin before the holidays, if at all. An offer of half the league's millions wasn't enough to keep players talking, much less get them to sign on the dotted line.

No need to feel sorry for the owners, who plead poverty even while they shop for a Rolex or two of their own. Like their NFL counterparts, they own franchises that continue to appreciate and are so coveted by their fellow billionaires that they continue to sell even with the threat of a lost season.

And the players? Well, last I checked they were doing OK, too. A bit worried about the possibility there won't be any big checks in the mail this month, but determined to stick it out for the greater good of basketball players everywhere, even if they have to sell their Rolexes to make ends meet.

There's a strange dichotomy going on in America, where the economy is so weak that nearly 1 in 10 people are unemployed and there are fears of yet another recession. At the same time, major sports are so awash in cash that the biggest arguments revolve around how to divide up the loot.

I was in a hotel meeting room in Las Vegas a few weeks ago with about 30 NBA players, listening to them talk about solidarity and the need to stand up to the man. They all wore matching T-shirts to show how united they were, looking much like union workers anywhere in search of a fair contract — except these union members all stood about 6-foot-8 and made millions of dollars dunking basketballs.

I understood where they were coming from. They have a good thing — no, make that a really good thing — and there's nothing they would like better than to keep it.

But I wondered if they understood, too, that the world they live in is far different from the one most Americans live in.

They have guaranteed contracts worth millions. Doesn't matter if they ever make another basket, or grab another rebound. The money is always there, an average of $5.15 million a year for every player who puts on an NBA uniform.

That kind of money can do a lot of things in a country where some 46.2 million people — or nearly 1 in 6 Americans — live in poverty, according to a report last month by the U.S. Census Bureau. Imagine what a charity like Feeding America, which turns food and money donations into meals, could do with it.

"Eating is not always a sure thing for everyone in America," said Feeding America spokesman Ross Fraser. "A lot of people are really hurting."

That's not the fault of NBA players, of course. They've simply taken advantage of market conditions to make a lucrative living, and in recent times the conditions have gotten better and better for those with the skills to compete at the highest level.

Same thing in baseball, where pitcher Cliff Lee gave the Phillies a discount in the offseason so they only had to pay him $20 million a year to work every fifth day.

I'm not faulting only the players here. If the owners had their way, they'd pay Lee $1,000 a start and make him sell peanuts in the stands the other four days to get their value out of him. They're just as greedy as the players. Anyone paying $10.50 for a beer or $75 just to park in sight of Cowboys Stadium on any given Sunday can surely attest to that.

Meanwhile, you're paying for it at home, too, even if you don't realize it. The cable bill keeps going up, driven by deals like the nearly $2 billion a year ESPN will pay for the rights to "Monday Night Football." Can't afford cable? Well, you won't be watching many baseball playoff games until the World Series begins.

And then there's the biggest scam of all: The huge TV contracts that have enticed colleges to abandon historical alliances and rivalries in hopes of cashing in on millions. The best thing is — are you listening NBA owners? — the colleges don't have to pay their players a dime above room, board and maybe a few books.

Precarious economic times aside, there's never been so much money in sports. It's there for the taking, and sometimes — as in the case of the NBA and its players — the fight over the pot of gold can get ugly.

It's not about who gets rich and who doesn't; everyone will end up just fine.

The only real question is who gets the biggest Rolex.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg