Sports fans and writers often use the phrase "overpaid athletes," but that’s an oversimplification. We are living in a money-based society, not a merit-based one, and professional sports bring in a tremendous amount of money. The people who play these games, or manage or coach them, are responsible for this money, so they should share in it.
The question is whether an individual deserves the money he’s getting and we had two interesting cases in the Bay Area last week.
The first was Warriors coach Don Nelson, who wanted his contract rewritten so that the $2 million he got in bonuses when his team reached the second round of the playoffs would be included as part of his guaranteed salary.
The contract he finally signed gives him that $5.1 million salary he sought this year, but with a club option for the third year.
Nelson is definitely worth the money. He brought excitement back to the Warriors last season, with a stirring run down the stretch that got the Warriors into the playoffs for the first time since Nelson was coach in his first go-round. That also spurred season ticket sales for this year, so the Warriors realized an immediate revenue jump.
It would have been insane on both sides for Nelson to leave. His friend and former player Chris Mullin has designed the team Nelson wanted. Another coach would not have the same results. But sports success can be fragile. If Baron Davis breaks a leg in the second game of the season, that would doom the Warriors, no matter what Nelson did, which is why he wanted that $2 million bonus money in the form of guaranteed salary.
The other case, the Raiders finally signing No. 1 overall draft pick JaMarcus Russell, is much more speculative because nobody can predict with certainty what kind of pro quarterback Russell will be. Remember the debate in 1998 over whether Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf would be the No. 1 overall pick? Manning, who was the pick, quarterbacked the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title in February and is on his way to a Hall of Fame career. No. 2 overall pick Leaf quickly washed out of the league.
With that example, the Raiders wanted to limit the guaranteed bonus money to Russell. His agents wanted money up front because, after the first year, NFL contracts are not guaranteed. In fact, though, compensation for first-round picks has gotten out of hand. The NFL and players association should agree on a contractual limitation on first-year salaries. I can’t imagine players association executive director Gene Upshaw objecting, because that would mean more money for veteran players.
The final contract numbers for Russell are gaudy; he could get as much as $68 million over the course of his contract. If he does, he will have earned it. In baseball, it’s sometimes difficult to quantify the contribution of one player — though nobody can doubt that Barry Bonds has been worth every cent of his Giants contracts — but NFL teams seldom go very far without a top-flight quarterback. If Russell becomes a great quarterback, he will lead the Raiders out of the football wilderness.
And that’s the key in professional sports. If a player, coach or manager contributes significantly to his team’s success on the field and at the box office, he is not overpaid.