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Original Issue


Although team owners have the loot to pay today's large salaries, can sports or the players afford them?

I'd be lying if I said it was not the money. I wouldn't be putting my body through this physical punishment if I was not well paid.

Money is great...but sometimes I think that I should be more selective. But then people make you more offers, the kind you would be crazy to turn down.

Generally, the foundation of professional sports is no longer loyalty and trust. It is now business and adjustment. I am not happy about that.

For most people...the years between 35 and 55 are the most productive ones, but not for athletes. They're slipping over the edge.

I don't want my whole life to be dependent on tennis. I don't want it to be a business. To me it's still a sport, a healthy activity and fun.

I just love to play. I don't know anybody that really produces who doesn't think that way. Guys who play just for the money aren't around long.

No athlete is worth the money he is getting, including me.
—ELVIN HAYES, pro basketball player

Did the big money affect me? I'd say a little bit. Like, I was a good, hardworking hockey player one year, and then after I got the million, I rolled over and went to sleep.
—DEREK SANDERSON, former pro hockey player

Many players are now more concerned about protecting their earning power than performing. So the quality of basketball is not what it used to be. The fans pay an inflated price for a tarnished product—all because of greed.
—WAYNE EMBRY, former pro basketball player and executive

Players have lost all loyalty to a club, to their teammates and perhaps even to themselves.
—BUZZIE BAVASI, baseball executive

How can the manager exert discipline? What is he going to do to a guy with a million-dollar contract, fine him?
—LEO DUROCHER, former baseball manager

Yes, there is clear-cut evidence of high-salaried players dogging it.
—ART MODELL, pro football owner

Selfish? Disloyal? Spoiled? Greedy? Lazy? Can these be the same shining heroes who only a few boxes of Wheaties ago were strong, brave, true and vitamin-fortified? Yes, but a new additive has been thrown into the mix—big money—and it has knocked everything out of focus, including the eye of the beholder. Because of it, professional athletes are different today, and if their new image sometimes appalls, look again tomorrow. Things may have changed because the players are in a State of Flux, an uncharted area somewhere between Fort Knox and the Land of Oz.

The confusion figures. The axiom—too much lucre too soon can be discombobulating—is still true. Just ask Derek Sanderson. Or think of the players as characters in The Millionaire, the vintage TV series in which a shadowy donor gave $1 million to some deserving wretch each week and then watched the poor soul go bonkers between toothpaste commercials. But all was ultra-bright in the end, when the recipient invariably discovered that, sonofagun, money cannot buy happiness after all.

The players have not come to that part yet, but they are adjusting, slowly and un-surely. The bonanza is all so new, so overwhelming that recent free-agent prospectors like Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock, former Minnesota Twins, give the impression that they have struck fool's gold. Hisle, whose salary leaped from $47,200 to $525,833.33 when he joined the Milwaukee Brewers this season, will not talk about his good fortune. (Hisle's salary, like that of all athletes on long-term contracts discussed in this article and in the chart on pages 42 and 43, has been determined by dividing the total value of his deal—$3,155,000—including deferred monies and bonuses, by the number of years—six—the contract covers.) He is, says his agent, "embarrassed by all the money he is making."

Bostock talks about his big raise—from $20,000 to $450,000, compliments of the California Angels—but he says odd things. Like take it back. A .336 hitter for the Twins last season, he slumped so badly this spring, batting only .051 after his first 39 at bats, that he asked the Angels not to pay him for the month of April. When they declined, he said that he would donate the money to charity "to help people who were never given a chance, not people who had a chance and blew it. You've got to discern the needy from the greedy."

That is not easy. Indeed, the players' gilt complex has resulted partially from the futility of trying to determine who deserves how much for what. While the widely held opinion that pro athletes are so vastly overpaid that it endangers the existence of their teams is not valid, because most teams can well afford the salaries, it is true that the rapid change in the wage scales has resulted in some bizarre overpayments, such as Sanderson's million-dollar deal. And there are others—Rod Carew, who makes about 200 grand a year, for example—who are grossly underpaid by today's standards. The net result of this is that the salary structure of professional sports is wildly out of kilter. Yet, there is a longing among players and fans for the performances on the field to match the digits on the paychecks. Such figuring always computes out to dollars and nonsense. Juggled any one of a hundred ways, it is impossible to compare Carew's .388 to his $200,000. And .051 will never jibe with Bostock's $450,000. But then, what would?

Nobody knows, but everyone has an opinion. Which would not matter very much if the players were toiling in corporate obscurity. But they are center stage, their every pratfall scrutinized, televised and criticized. By the numbers. Salaries have become adjectives, a measure of skill used to zap, say, the $500,000 forward who can't buy a rebound. In short, there is a lot of pressure to play up to one's pay.

Or so say many of the pro athletes who have come into sudden wealth. Wayne Garland is a case in point. A 20-game winner for the Baltimore Orioles in 1976, he became a free agent last year and signed a 10-year, $2.3-million contract with the Cleveland Indians. Troubled by a sore arm, he lost his first four starts of 1977 and staggered through a 13-19 season that "I'd like to forget." Now convalescing from shoulder surgery that will keep him off the mound for the rest of this year and perhaps for good. Garland recalls, "There were times last season when I thought I'd lost my sanity. Another loss and I would have gone crazy.... I think what happened to me was that I was too anxious to prove to the fans I was worth the money."

What some people think of the athletes' plaints is: big deal, for the kind of money they're hauling in they can buy understanding from their barkeep. That, too, is the attitude embraced by some of the players' own kind, particularly managers and coaches. Often more in regret than rancor, the old guard bemoans the lack of "hunger" in today's players. "The only time they lift a finger is to dial their stockbrokers," says Dick Williams, manager of the Montreal Expos. Bobby Hull, when he was player-coach of the Winnipeg Jets, said, "Guys get a dollar in their pocket and they say, 'Who, me work? Who, me sweat?' Why should a guy with a half-million-dollar contract want to have sweat dripping down his face or play with bruises? Why, they won't even play with bruised feelings."

If it is not guilty of harboring a tinge of born-too-soon envy, the old guard is at least beset by a why-can't-things-be-like-they-were syndrome. In a sense, to pine for the old hunger is to deny the new security, a goal that the players' unions struggled to achieve through the first half of this decade when the rallying cry was "Freedom now!" Now that the players have their freedom, it's bonkers time. And although the owners have abetted and funded the insanity, they have adopted their own chant, "Help!"

While both sides try to adjust, only a few safe generalizations can be made about the new jock millionaires. They are brighter—gone forever is the old dumb jock image—more independent and decidedly more mobile. The last of these generalizations was evidenced this season when the Lakers had to take four different team pictures in the hope of getting one in which the squad would vaguely resemble the roster they were suiting up for their games. That, of course, is an exaggerated case, as misleading as the tendency to judge all of the 2,482 players in the four major team sports and the several hundred workaday athletes earning their wages in individual sports by the publicity heaped on a handful of superstars. Indeed, even within that select handful, there are as many different reactions to the money mania as there are superstars.

Q. Is there a new breed of jock elite?

A. Reggie Jackson owns five Rolls-Royces, including a $70,000, silver-blue "every-day driver," in which he wheeled from New York to the Yankee training camp in Fort Lauderdale this spring. His traveling companion was Ralph Destino, president of Cartier's, diamond merchant to the stars.

Such glitter befits the man who inspired the REGGIE! candy bar, Jackson suggests. "I'm the straw that stirs the drink. There is nobody who can put meat in the seats the way I can," he says. That is Reggie the promoter talking. A walking conglomerate who is attended by seven full-time advisers, he is a principal investor in an Arizona real estate venture reportedly worth $20 million, owner of three auto dealerships, commentator for ABC Sports and spokesman for Puma, Rawlings, Volkswagen and Standard Brands. Of his brilliant, often stormy, career as one of baseball's premier sluggers, he has said, "I am a black man with an IQ of 160 making $700,000 a year, and they treat me like dirt."

Then there is Reggie the charmer, an open, disarming man who sat in the dugout one recent afternoon and reflected on the vagaries of fame, fortune and the feuding Yankees. "I almost cracked up last year," he said. "It was a traumatic experience, depressing. People don't really know the true feelings of players. They think we are only in it for the money, that we are mercenaries.

"The problems were created by the money. The big salary made me more visible, I was scrutinized more. People were ready to knock me no matter what I did. Money makes you wealthier but it does not make you a better athlete. It was a hell of a year, a horrible experience, but I stuck with it. Now people will have more respect for my character."

How about a character who buys five cars in the outasight price range? "I have the Rolls-Royces for investments. I don't care to lose money. Look at what happened to the dollar yesterday. In 1971 you could get 360 yen for a dollar, now it's down to 202. The dollar has declined similarly against the mark. The Rollses are a hedge against inflation."

Did the Yankees buy the championship? "Money didn't buy nothing. All that hitting I did last year, you couldn't buy those hits. I'm not a Johnny-come-lately. This is my 11th big league season. In the beginning I was making 10 grand. In 1969 I made $20,000, and I had to hold out three weeks to get it. In '73, when I was the MVP, I made $75,000. There is a new breed of athlete, but they are not as gritty as the proven players. There is a lot of careless spending. Research should be done before you give a kid $200,000. Athletes are human beings; we're more fallible than machines."

Will salaries level off? "No, there will always be some dumb owner willing to pay the big salary. They can afford to take the risk and the loss. They own $100-million corporations, and the salaries are no money at all to them. Radio and TV are paying the tab—the money that fans-put in is just gravy. But in the long run the public does pay. Yoo-Hoo raises its price so it can afford a 60-second spot on TV. It's all built in."

The future? "One day I'm going to own a team. I'll probably do it with baseball, but I'm also looking at basketball, because the overhead is not as much. I'd have to be in other things, too. With a club you only get 10% to 12%, and that's just a so-so return on your money."

Several inflations ago, following a good season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gene Hermanski went to the front office for salary talks with Branch Rickey, the wiliest negotiator this side of an Arab slave market. Upon emerging, Hermanski was smiling beatifically.

"You get a raise. Gene?" someone asked.

"No," Hermanski beamed, "but he didn't cut me."

Today Hermanski would be held for psychiatric observation. He suffered from an affliction that players have only lately learned to overcome: gratitude for being paid for what they would do for free.

Trouble is, a lot of folks keep bugging the players about their cushy deal, calling them overpaid ingrates and worse. And so out of necessity pro athletes have formulated a handy six-pack of standard arguments for why they should be paid a fortune for playing a game:

1. There's no biz like show biz—except sports biz. According to this defense, if Paul Newman can knock down a million dollars and more for flashing his baby blues, then the stars of the sweat circuit deserve as much. Pete Maravich has a list of celebrities' salaries, which by comparison, he claims, make his $625,000 a year from the New Orleans Jazz look paltry. "Sure, I'm making big money, but look around," he says. "Elton John does a lot of screaming, and he makes better than $10 million. Johnny Carson gets about $3 million. Look at what they're paying movie stars. None of these guys work harder than I do."

2. Nobody knows the trouble we've seen. It may seem like fun and games, the players say, but have you ever been blindsided on a kickoff, traded elbows under the boards or taken a hockey stick in the chops? "We put a lot of wear and tear on our bodies," says San Antonio Spur George Gervin. "We're sacrificing ourselves to give the fans something to see. If that's not work, what is?"

3. One in a million deserves a million. To be analytical about it, which Canadien Goalie Ken Dryden, a lawyer and former Nader's Raider, usually is, the jocks' big compensation is basic economics. "To me, salaries are not paid on utility but on scarcity." he says. "If a certain commodity is scarce and is capable of generating revenue, it is usually well paid." The way NBA players figure it, 242 pro basketball players in a nation of more than 200 million people makes them one in a million, and they should be reimbursed accordingly.

4. You only go around once, and it's a short trip. As one of the few two-sport pros in the land, John Lucas, Houston Rocket guard and New Orleans Nets tennis player, knows all about longevity. "I think athletes are grossly underpaid," he says. "If you work in an office, you can wait around until you're 37 to make a lot, but in the NBA you've got to make it right away because the average player lasts about four years."

5. Don't blame us, blame da massa. The money that the owners are shelling out now proves they have always been rolling in it, the players say, and after decades of being paid slave wages, the field hands deserve everything they can get. After all, restraint is not the responsibility of the payee but the payer.

6. Put yourself in our Adidases. Dodger Tommy John has this story he likes to tell. During a Q. and A. session at a banquet, a man accused players who jump clubs of being greedy. John replied, "If you were offered a job by a competitor of your present employer, and the competitor said he would give you a $50,000 raise, a new car and a new home, would you leave your company?" The man said no. John recalls, "I told him that he was 'either dumb or drunk, perhaps a little bit of both,' and the rest of the people laughed him down."

Julius Erving counts his money every night before retiring and every morning when he gets up. Not the whole $600,000-a-year pile he is paid by the Philadelphia 76ers, just his walking around money. "I have this habit," he once confessed to his wife Turquoise. "I was always so poor that if I had a dime I made sure when I went to bed that dime would be there when I got up."

Turquoise says, "Julius is still wearing some of the same pants he had when I first met him about five years ago. Some of them are shiny. He doesn't like to spend money." Except for a 14-room home on six acres in Upper Brookville, N.Y., even Erving's big expenditures—a sparsely furnished three-bedroom condominium in Philadelphia, a van, a station wagon and an aging $8,000 Avanti—tend to be on the conservative side. Holding to a $100,000-a-year budget, Erving invests the rest of his money in blue-chip stocks, bonds and real estate—nothing speculative, only what will be there when he wakes up in the morning.

"Players have to be careful," Erving said after one of his daring evenings on the court last spring. Winding down in typically low-key, low-rent fashion—pancakes in an all-night Philly diner—he ticked off the names of good veteran players, Cazzie Russell, Keith Erickson, et al., who had been replaced with younger, cheaper talent by cost-cutting owners. "It's become a two-way street," he said. Though Philadelphians consider Dr. J about as expendable as the Liberty Bell, at 28 he has been keeping some actuarial statistics. "Of the 242 players in the league," he said, "only 30 guys are 30 years old or older. A player over 30 has to be careful how he deals."

Once burned, Erving is thrice cautious after messy contract dealings with the New York Nets and other teams that left him feeling "tarnished." He said, "Some owners view players like a set of toy trains in the basement. They exchange players like toys, run lives and are insensitive to the existence of the player. Generally the foundation of professional sports is no longer loyalty and trust. It is now business and adjustment. I am not happy about that. I love playing basketball. I'd play for free. But that was not the situation when I came into the pros. I had to adjust and deal. In the beginning I was taken advantage of. Players have to be careful that they don't get used and cast aside. You have to protect yourself."

And so at 2:15 a.m. he drove off in his Avanti, cautiously holding to the speed limit in the deserted streets.

Popular notions to the contrary, not all pro athletes ride the limo-disco circuit, whirling from talk show to screen test to celebrity golf outing. Some of the super-rich jocks, Erving among them, choose to keep a relatively low profile. And, as Randy Rasmussen of the New York Jets attests, the life-style of the vast majority of less affluent pros is decidedly more ordinary. On a recent summer afternoon, for example, Rasmussen, an 11-year NFL veteran who played in the Jets' 1969 Super Bowl upset of the Colts, was not exercising stock options but his duties as an Elmsford, N.Y. homeowner with a mortgage. A three-bedroom, two-car, one-child suburbanite, he was out in his Bermuda shorts mowing the lawn.

Consigned to play one of the most un-glamorous positions in sports—offensive guard—Rasmussen tends to be inspired by little things, such as discovering that he was featured on a bubble-gum card. "It sounds silly," he says, "but I was thrilled."

Rasmussen has no endorsements and gets no freebies. He is thankful when the He Man Shop alerts him to an upcoming clothing sale, but, he says, "I don't get any breaks on prices." An occasional speech at a sports banquet helps pay for his two "extravagances," an annual two-week vacation and a family membership in the "least expensive country club in Westchester." His two cars—a battered 1970 Dodge he calls the Blue Nightmare and a later model Buick—are hardly dreammobiles. Rasmussen could afford something flashier, but then he would not have much loot left to invest in the feed and cattle farm in Elba, Neb. he owns with his two brothers.

Rasmussen suffers his spear carrier's role manfully, because the Jets, if not always the fans, appreciate his contribution. In 1977 he negotiated a contract that calls for him to receive $87,000 this year and $90,000 in 1979. That makes Rasmussen well compensated by the standards of offensive linemen, but his income falls hundreds of thousands of dollars short of that of athletes of similar seniority who play more glamorous positions. As a bodyguard to the stars, including Joe Namath during his Broadway Joe years, Rasmussen says, "I don't begrudge quarterbacks anything. It's the most important position, and they're worth the money. I never have played with a high-paid problem back there. John Riggins, who used to be our fullback, was an eccentric, a real screwball, but I still liked to block for him." Trading on a "feeling that we're all in it together," he says that the payoff for offensive linemen comes when a "running back tells you, 'That was a great block.' That's your reward."

More difficult is keeping in shape during the off-season, a regimen that required Rasmussen to quit his job as a stockbroker. Still, he wouldn't have it any other way. "Shoot, football is fun," he says. "I just love to play. I don't know anybody that really produces who doesn't think this way. Guys who play just for the money aren't around long."

Now 33, Rasmussen does not like to ponder how much longer he will be around the NFL. "What business is going to hire a 35-year-old beginner?" he says. "Thinking about retiring is like thinking about getting ready to die. I know it's going to come, but it doesn't enter my mind. It might be foolish, but my future is this fall and playing football. I can't wait for the season to start."

Larry Csonka. Ken Holtzman. Ernie DiGregorio. John Riggins. Andy Messer-smith. Kent Benson. The roster goes on and on, and they all have three things in common: big reputations, big money, big disappointments. Every season has its share of fizzles and flameouts. Yet in a profession that reveres the "110% guy," there is no escaping the popular notion about the high-priced flops: big money has blunted their competitive edge.

The most important fact about the players' long-term contracts is that, while they are not likely to put an owner out of business, they may serve to knock the team out of the pennant race. "There are two things players and other human beings seek—security and heaven," says Ray Kroc, owner of the San Diego Padres. "If you give them half of that, you ruin their motivation." With the kind of security awarded to some players—long-term, no-cut, no-trade security—heaven can wait until all the deferred payments are collected. The hitch is that regardless of how tenaciously a well-heeled competitor may perform, the slightest slipup invariably elicits charges that he is jaking or dogging it.

Coaches claim that the symptoms of the "dollar drags" are all too noticeable. "A guy who signs a long-term contract obviously isn't going to be as hungry," says Cincinnati Bengal Coach Bill Johnson. "In his heart he thinks he is, but that extra-special push isn't there."

"Regardless of what the athlete says, if he has total security and is put in a tough spot, he may go through the motions and say, The hell with it, I've got mine,' " says Dr. Thomas Tutko, a noted sports psychologist. "It is the very nature of a player not to participate when all is lost, not to put out totally. You keep people insecure, and you keep the competitive edge. Now the player is asking not only for security, but for security as a millionaire. That introduces a host of other problems that have never been faced before."

Dodger owner Walter O'Malley sees other side effects. "I'm worrying about malingering," he says, citing situations in which "a big star with a no-cut, no-trade deal won't put out for fear of hurting himself." He is also bothered by the star who may dog it because he wants to play elsewhere. Did Anthony Davis, as his teammates contend, use that ploy so he would be waived out of the Canadian Football League and could join the NFL? Was Ellis Valentine's foot hurting so badly that he had to miss 22 games in a row last season, the Expos' front office has wondered.

The suspicions are insidious and in many ways worse than the supposed transgressions. But they persist, perhaps in part because some players concede that the strains of a long season force them to balance "playing hurt" against "pacing," pride against survival. "When it comes to putting out," says Golden State Warrior Coach Al Attles, "sometimes a long-term contract can be a problem. The player knows he's going to be paid, so he may be sick when people around him aren't so sure he really is. Pro basketball's a tough contact sport, and sometimes I feel they're protecting their bodies and the money involved."

High above Atlanta, behind a sleek mahogany desk in an office the size of a tennis court, sits the founder, owner and board chairman of Behavioral Systems, Inc., an international management consulting firm. The eminence's name is Francis Asbury Tarkenton, the most successful businessman ever to wear the uniform of the Minnesota Vikings or perhaps any other team.

Overseeing a staff of 75 and with accounts stretching from Spokane to Saudi Arabia, Tarkenton commutes between his luxurious home in Atlanta and a Minneapolis hotel during the season and scrambles even harder after the final game. And along with his $350,000-plus Viking salary, his other interests—Behavioral Systems, a long-term contract with NBC, endorsements and promotional work for Delta Air Lines, General Mills, AT&T, Puma, Eastman Kodak and MSA. a leading computer software company—give him an annual income estimated at $1.2 million. He is a millionaire several times over.

Yet Fran Tarkenton is troubled. Behavioral Systems, Inc. specializes in maximizing job performance through motivation, and as an expert he feels that the carryings-on in professional sports of late are anything but inspirational.

"Some of the discipline is gone from our game," he says. "We now have different rules for different folks, and there is more griping today. We are all getting paid so much that we've started to think that we are celebrities. Management reinforces it by letting it happen. They are buckling to keep the big-money star happy. We're moving more and more to a class system—the big superstar and then the others. Team discipline has broken down as a consequence.

"Athletes delude themselves. They think they're set for life, but they're not. A $2-million, 10-year contract sounds great, but it's not. There is inflation to contend with; and taxes take so much that when they're finished playing ball they too often go into debt. About the only jobs open to them are in coaching. They're not prepared to do anything else.

"I'm well paid and I have five experts working on investments for me, but I still have to go to work every day to keep things going. As far as I know, of the 45 players on the Viking team, I'm the only one who has a job in the off-season. In the entire league I'm probably one of the 5% or less who work off the field.

"Quarterbacks are supposed to be the smart ones. At the Super Bowl, I talked to Kenny Stabler about what he was going to do. He told me he planned to see some fights, hunt, fish. Roger Staubach, supposedly the real brain, said he was going to relax and mess around the house. Bob Griese said he'd make some speeches and play golf.

"Too many players think that the money will be there forever. At the age of 21 they can't believe that they won't play forever. You can't tell them that soon they will be too old to play football. You can't even tell a 21-year-old that he is going to be old. Too many retired athletes say that the happiest years of their life were spent playing pro ball, that now their lives are over. Mickey Mantle talks about missing the cheering. It's sad.

"Most people are getting their lives together at age 36 to 38. Their jobs are beginning to open up; they are moving ahead. The years from 35 to 55 are the most productive ones—but not for athletes. They're slipping off the edge." Joe DeLamielleure has no use for no-cut contracts. A guard with the Buffalo Bills, he claims to thrive on uncertainty. "It's just human nature," he says. "If you know you have the money coming in, you might not put out as hard. I know myself, and I wouldn't want anything guaranteed, because it's the money that motivates me. I would love the Bills to write nothing but incentive clauses into my contract because I'd cash in on every one."

Many teams are doing precisely that, agreeing to a wide range of bonuses that are as speculative as hog-belly futures. One variation is styled after the contracts of show-biz heavies who take a cut of the house. Dave Kingman's deal, for example, calls for him to receive an additional $50,000 in any year that the Cubs reach 1.6 million in attendance.

While it may help to ward off the no-cut blahs, the emphasis on incentive bonuses raises questions about their effect on the game. Do coaches bench players, as has been charged, to prevent them from collecting bonuses for total minutes played? Does the trend undermine the hallowed concept of the primacy of the team over the individual? In short, are players more selfish?