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.
O. J. SIMPSON
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?
"Heck, yes," says the Spurs' Allan Bristow. "I'd say 80% of the players in the NBA are that way. Why? In any occupation you have to look out for yourself and your family. If you think that you have to score a certain number of points, that's what you do."
Do some players attempt to enhance their personal statistics at the expense of all else? "Do they!" exclaims Houston Rocket President and General Manager Ray Patterson. "Listen, they'll even go so far as to jeopardize a ball game for their own stats."
If so, the locker-room consensus is that management is to blame because it played the numbers game to its advantage for so many years. "Stats are the first thing they throw at you when you go to talk contract," says Indian Outfielder Jim Norris. "They make it important. Winning should be the thing, but if I need five more percentage points to hit .290, that's what I'll be thinking about. Those points will mean so much when talking contract."
Rick Barry is pro basketball's original vagabond. Signed by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965, he skipped to the ABA two seasons later and played for three teams before returning to the NBA and the Warriors in 1972. Last month he signed as a free agent with Houston. Along the way he parlayed his initial $15,000 salary into a $500,000-a-year bundle, ushering in a new era of gypsies in short pants. At first, he recalls, "I was called a no-good, money-hungry player. I guess it was to be expected. When you're a pioneer, you get criticism. But it's ironic. In an amazingly short time, three to five years, I was hearing, 'We don't blame you. You should get what you can. Heck, we're only here once!' "
Now he wonders, what hath Rick wrought? "There are an incredible number of guys who don't deserve what they are getting," he says. "There are players in the NBA who are not qualified to be pros. But the owners created the monster, and now they are being gobbled up. If I was an owner, I would not be paying these big salaries. Some you can justify—Lanier, Maravich, Erving, Kareem. You can pay their salaries with the extra people they bring into the arena. But other players compare themselves to these guys and think, 'Well, I'm half as good so I deserve $300,000.' They don't take into account factors like charisma."
Worse yet, says Barry, the money mania is breeding a new generation of gunners. "Kids have the wrong idea about basketball. They are now all hungry to score points. They read that the high scorers are making the money, and it's true. Scoring is overemphasized. Go to any playground. You'll never see a youngster get in a defensive position or practice passing. It's shoot, shoot, shoot.
"I'll tell you what money has done. It's changed the philosophy of the game. Pro basketball is not played as well today as it was 10 years ago. Players don't know the fundamentals. They have far greater ability and natural skills, but they are being wasted. We're playing the playground game—run, jump, shoot.
"Owners should take a harder look at the attitude of players. Maybe they should have a psychologist ask questions to help them evaluate if a guy cares enough to give his best effort all the time. If we'd go out there and think we rather than I, it would make it so much easier."
Why does Rick Barry go out on the court? "I'd be lying if I said it was not the money," he readily concedes. "I wouldn't be putting my body through this physical punishment if I was not well paid."
In fact, if he had it to do all over again, Barry says he would choose golf or tennis. "Then I wouldn't have the frustration of worrying about anyone but me." Or having to hustle for endorsements. "Basketball is very limited," he says. "We're not as popular or offered things like the football, baseball and tennis players and golfers are." Though well-heeled—Barry has real estate, shopping center and restaurant investments and earns a minimum of $50,000 as a CBS sportscaster, in addition to his 500 grand a season for playing—he is ready to expand. Have spiel, will travel.
"I would be a good spokesman for a company," he says. "I'd like to go to trade shows and give speeches. It would be a wonderful thing. I'm in a unique position now where I could be a built-in ad every time I walked onto the court."
How does a Mercedes millionaire take orders from a middle-income stiff making monthly payments on a Gremlin? Very reluctantly. And therein lies the plight of a forgotten man in the sports money binge: the coach. As players' salaries have soared, the authority of the once-revered "skipper" has diminished. Always a glut on the market, coaches now earn an average of about $60,000, or at least five times less than the superstars they command—or try to.
It's simple, says former Buffalo Brave General Manager Norman Sonju, "People don't pay to see the coach." More basic still to the economics of sports is a hard truth passed on by Angel President Buzzie Bavasi, "It's a lot easier to get a new manager than a shortstop."
The players, especially the top-dollar ones with long-term, no-cut contracts, are aware of the coach's tenuous position. All of them know that if there are clashes, the first one sent packing will be the guy with the clipboard. Since 1975, when the first-wave of high salaries washed over baseball, only four of the major league managers—Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver, Ralph Houk and. Danny Ozark—have remained in the same dugout. Last season four former NBA Coaches of the Year—Tom Heinsohn, Gene Shue, Red Holtzman and Phil Johnson—were replaced.
One result is preferential treatment for the VIPs (Very Important Players). Billy Cunningham, the 76er coach, admits, "You do tend to accommodate your best players because you don't want to be picking up and moving every year."
And the Vince Lombardi era of stern taskmasters is over. Told to jump, players no longer ask how high but why. About the only recourse coaches have is to bone up on their Dale Carnegie. Even screaming at the team can be a no-no, now that union rules enable players to file grievances at the hint of a threat.
All told, the upheaval in money and manners has radically changed the traditional role of the coach. Entrusted with an increasing number of the wayward and transient, they have become Father Flanagans with whistles—up to a point. Players will follow the basic regimen with "calculated tolerance," says Rocket President Ray Patterson. "But don't try to regulate their lives on the road or tell them to go to church or to be faithful to their wives. Then you're in trouble."
"Now this is success!" exclaimed O. J. Simpson, scampering childlike through the mansion he bought last year in the exclusive Brentwood section of Los Angeles. "I grew up in housing projects," he said, surveying the extras—guest house, pool and tennis court—that go with his new walled-in domain. "This is what money means. Security—knowing that none of my family will ever be on any lines—a nice house, a good neighborhood, privacy. It affords you the freedom to do what you want to do, although there is less time to enjoy it all."
Little wonder. One of the busiest, most diversified of jock entrepreneurs, Simpson seems to be going in three directions at once, a move not unfamiliar to NFL defenders. He is avidly pursuing his acting career, commanding more than $200,000 per movie. He has a five-year deal with NBC to do everything from sportscasting to drama to buck-and-wings, with the emphasis on the buck. And when not hurdling for Hertz (his Superstar in Rent-a-Car spots helped boost the company's profits by 50% in 1976), he is out there plugging TreeSweet orange juice (naturally), Shindana Toys (maker of the O. J. Simpson doll). Dingo boots, Wilson Sporting Goods and Hyde Spot-Bilt athletic shoes. Counting his salary from the Bills, Simpson's income was at least $1.5 million in 1977. "A true star, a true success, doesn't sit back," says the Juice. "Money is great to have, but sometimes it gets real crazy. Sometimes I feel really spaced out and think that I should be more selective. But then people make you more offers, the kind you would be crazy to turn down."
Except when it comes to movies and TV, Simpson handles his own business affairs. He works out of an office located—where else?—above a bank not far from his estate. A mixed-media Midas, he likes to get involved with all aspects of merchandising, especially when he can talk a sponsor into giving him a cut of its sales, as TreeSweet has done.
"I think if they're going to be using me," he says, "why shouldn't I benefit from it, too? They're not giving the money to the Heart Association."
Simpson personally negotiated his record $733,358-a-year contract with the Buffalo Bills in 1976. "Ninety-nine percent of all pro football players went to college," he says, "and in four years something's got to rub off. They don't need an agent to keep their money, or give them a budget. I'm against business agents because they allow the athlete to rely on someone else. Once a player's career is over, these people aren't around. The guy is faced with doing it himself. And that's when you read about guys having problems adjusting to being regular people."
"Lonely and bored" in Buffalo, Simpson views his trade to the San Francisco 49ers last March as a giant step closer to the Hollywood career that awaits him when he hangs up his Spot-Bilts. Now 31, he says, "Football is what I am, but I'm pushing it physically. I want to be remembered as the Juice, really cooking. I want to go out in style."
Meanwhile, he adds, pumping his arms as if ready to take off through another airport, "I just keep on running."
In the early 1960s a man entered the Packers' office, identified himself to Vince Lombardi as an agent and announced that he had come to negotiate Jim Ringo's contract with the Green Bay Packers. Lombardi excused himself, walked into his personal office and closed the door. Returning a few minutes later, he told the agent, "You are negotiating with the wrong team. Mr. Ringo has just been traded to Philadelphia."
Agents are in better odor these days, but only slightly, their ranks including every species from the legit to the larcenous. And they have exploited the gains won by the players' unions in ways never before deemed possible or even decent. What would the Gas House Gang have thought if one of its members was holding out for cushions on the bench?
Deals for suites, water beds and limo service on the road, plus houses, automobiles and interest-free loans at home are just for openers. When it gets down to the fine print, demands are made—and met—that a player must start and be prominently featured in any game on national television, must play a specified position and have veto rights over any shifts, must be guaranteed a minimum amount of playing time and must be featured on the cover of all promotional materials.
Most agents are reputable, but a shocking percentage are not, and a whole new NFL—National Fish League—could be started with the athletes who have been ripped off by the muscle merchants. Because agents need not be licensed or bonded, the field has attracted fast-buck artists who take money under the table from teams, use the wallop of one player to gain leverage in bargaining for another and engage in double billing and other fraudulent practices.
Some agents con players into signing long-term contracts in which the agent gets 10% of all the player's income, including inheritances. And while much of the athlete's money may be deferred when he signs with a team, the agent takes his cut of the total package right away. "Anyone can pick up a briefcase and call himself an agent," says Nick Buoniconti, an agent, lawyer and former Miami Dolphin linebacker. "A kid can absolutely be taken to the slaughterhouse before he realizes what has happened."
So how does it feel to be rich, young, famous, glamorous and pursued by Burt Reynolds? "I'm not glamorous, I'm not beautiful," says Chris Evert, the first woman athlete to earn more than $1 million. "I don't want to be on any plateau higher than anyone else."
But there she is, right up there with the paragons of modest demeanor and heavy bucks. Having banked $503,134 in winnings last year and having recently signed a three-year, $1-million contract with the Los Angeles Strings of the WTT, the 23-year-old Evert understands the words of another all-American success story, John D. Rockefeller Jr.: "The only question with wealth," John D. once said, "is what to do with it."
Chris Evert chooses to do little with her loot; she is a cottage industry among the walking conglomerates of big-money sports. Her father, Jimmy Evert, runs Evert Enterprises out of the family's modest home in Fort Lauderdale. They have lived there for 16 years, and though Mrs. Evert feels that any house with five bedrooms is a cut above the "modest bungalow" she keeps reading about, modest it is.
Jimmy Evert is the tennis pro at the public courts down the street. Chris, the second-oldest of five children, still shares a bedroom with her sister Jeanne. She makes her own bed. She does not own a car. Her "only major thing" is a Russian lynx coat, a gift to herself on her 21st birthday. Modest is the word.
Not surprisingly, Evert Enterprises is no go-go operation. "A simple, conservative man with minimal material possessions," as Chris describes him, Jimmy Evert warns her about "overexposure" and "spreading yourself too thin." One manifestation of his cautious approach is that most of Chris' money is socked away in tax-free bonds. The interest isn't high, but the risks are very low.
Not too long ago, father and daughter relaxed at a private tennis club in Fort Lauderdale and chatted about the perils, as Chris put it, of "too many people taking a piece of me, knowing me too well."
One of the least financially committed players on the tour, Chris has turned down lucrative offers to lend her name to tennis clubs and resorts, because "I'm not too heavy on outside responsibility." She says cheese for Borden's and does endorsements for Puritan sportswear, Helene Curtis, Wilson and Converse, endeavors that yielded her approximately $250,000 in 1977. But that's it. Ever protective of her time at home, she finds her endorsements well suited to her, because "right now I only put in two or three days a year with each company."
Jimmy: "Chris, maybe you shouldn't say that."
Chris: "Dad, I'm telling the truth."
"I don't want my whole life to be dependent on tennis," she says. "I don't want it to be a business. To me it's still a sport, a healthy activity and fun." Agents are anathema, she says. "They take a 20% or 25% cut, and they call the players constantly. I don't want to spend my time on the phone with an agent." Their worst offense, she says, is prodding players to play in exhibitions from which agents take a big cut.
Jimmy: "Chris has never played in exhibitions."
Chris: "Dad, that's not quite right. I have played in a couple for charity."
The bigger prize money, she said, has taken some of the spirit and excitement out of the women's tour. "Some of the players are not working as hard as they should. The money made at the middle and bottom is better than on the men's tour. You can lose in the first round and make $850. There are players happy with that. But the worst thing the money has done is make kids too competitive. Kids today are so wrapped up with tennis they look at it as their whole life. It's insane."
Surely there is something about the life-style of the queen of the courts that is a tad glamorous?
Jimmy: "Chrissie, you better tell the truth."
Chris: "I don't wash the dishes anymore."
As a bankable commodity, what distinguishes Chris Evert from the luminaries of team sports is the unique luster that goes with being No. 1 on a list titled Leading Money Winners. That is ultimately how tennis, golf and the other individual sports keep score; there are no won-lost percentages, no assists and no talk of group effort, just hard-cash numbers out front where everyone can marvel at the fruits of rugged individualism. It's the good old American way, and that fact gives the players of individual sports an advantage over their comrades in team games. Though a Jimmy Connors may be criticized for his abrasive behavior, nobody uses his winnings, which totaled $922,657 from all of his matches in 1977, as a deprecating adjective.
How much more outside money Evert might realize is evidenced by her male counterpart, Bjorn Borg.
A walking billboard, Borg is covered from head to toe with endorsements. Taking it from the top in 1977, he received $50,000 a year to wear a headband advertising Tuborg, a Danish beer. The Scandinavian Airlines System patch on Borg's left shoulder was good for $25,000. He got $200,000 for donning Fila shirts, shorts, socks and warmup suits, $100,000 for using Bancroft rackets-plus $2,000 for having them strung with VS gut—and $50,000 for wearing Tretorn tennis shoes. By also lending his name to cars, cereals, games, comic books, statues, bed linen, jeans and towels, Borg earned from $1.5 million to $2 million.
While lacking the international clout of their rich cousins on the tennis and golf tours, the athletes in team sports have achieved a new celebrity status at home that extends well beyond their games. The salary explosion has touched off a chain reaction of interest among people who would not know a blitz from a blintz. Even Andy Warhol has done silk-screens immortalizing Tom Seaver as well as a number of individual sports biggies. "Sports figures are to the '70s what movie stars were to the '60s," Warhol says.
The notoriety is reminiscent of that attending the young Joe Namath, when he set the theme for the 1970s. After quarterbacking the Jets to their upset victory in the 1969 Super Bowl, he was awarded a new $6,000 car as MVP—and his handlers asked for an appearance fee to pick it up.
Times change. Namath is now retired from the game, and one of his heirs, Tony Dorsett, is commanding $5,000 per speaking engagement. Like The Millionaire, the current period of adjustment to the money craze was not only predictable but so is the outcome—a better order evolving from the initial chaos. At present, perhaps the fairest characterization of the modern pro athlete is offered by Jim Eakins, a center for the Milwaukee Bucks. He says, "Players think more, want more and get more. It can be bad but much of it is good."
WHO MAKES WHAT
THE WORLD CHAMPION MONEYMAKER FOR 1977
Muhammad Ali, $5.75 million
THE ALL-TIME TOTAL-INCOME CHAMP*
Arnold Palmer, $55 million
*Includes golf winnings and non-sports income 1955-77.
Except where otherwise indicated, the figures in this chart are for money derived from official play. They include no earnings from exhibitions, endorsements, investments and the like. Tennis totals include no WTT salaries, and those for harness racing are estimates based on a rule of thumb that drivers get 10% of purses won.
BAUBLES, BANGLES AND BANKRUPTCY
"Most of my time is spent preventing the exploitation of athletes," says sports attorney Bob Woolf. "Getting money for athletes is not difficult; it's getting them to hang on to it that's hard." Given the easy availability these days of business managers, tax accountants and investment counselors, fewer athletes are going bankrupt, but for some, spending money is still an incurable disease.
"I don't know how long I'll be around this league, but while I've got the cash, I've got to make some splash," says Houston Rocket Guard Rudy White, who in three years splashed from a Chrysler, to a Cadillac, to a Mercedes. After Marvin (Bad News) Barnes signed his $2.1-million contract with St. Louis of the ABA in 1974, he spent $125,000 in six weeks. A silver Rolls-Royce, a diamond ring for each hand, a ruby necklace spelling NEWS and 13 telephones were musts for Barnes, then 21 years old.
White and Barnes are still earning ample sums in the NBA, but a number of other athletes who share their penchant for cash and splash are now out of sports and into bankruptcy or jail—or, in the case of sports' biggest spender, Derek Sanderson, trying to recover from a desperate slide into alcohol, drugs and thoughts of suicide.
In 1972 the Philadelphia Blazers of the WHA signed Sanderson to a five-year, $2.65-million contract. At $500,000 a year he was the highest-paid athlete in the world, but eight games into the season the Blazers bought back his contract for $1 million—or $333,333 a goal. Sanderson then bounced to six teams in six years. Last December he was hospitalized, ostensibly for burns suffered in a kitchen accident, but really to dry out from overuse of Valium, sleeping pills and alcohol. During his 10-year career. Sanderson grossed approximately $2 million. Now most of it is gone: $1 million to taxes. $100,000 to uncollectible loans to acquaintances, $100,000 to his agent, $32,000 for a Rolls-Royce, $35,000 for a single trip to Hawaii, $120,000 for his house in Fort Erie, Ontario, $45,000 for apartment renovation and thousands more on booze, broads and costly hotel suites. "In one year I spent $117,000 just living," says the out-of-work center, who figures he has simply "blown" $600,000. To be sure, Sanderson is self-destructive, but in the megabucks world of sports he has lots of company.
•In 1973 Johnny Neumann, once the nation's leading scorer in college basketball, earned $105,000 with the Memphis Tarns of the ABA, but he spent himself broke buying suits for teammates, a Jaguar sedan for his then-wife Carolyn and a "sophisticated" Ferrari for himself. In 1975 he filed for bankruptcy listing debts of $75,000. When the judge asked him if he ever thought about saving for the future, the 23-year-old Neumann replied, "Yes, sir, I did, but when I first started making the money, Carolyn and I spent it faster than we got it. We kept getting $20,000 to $30,000 in the hole and had to get advances and take out loans. We were never able to get out of the hole."
•In 1977 Joe Caldwell, a 10-year NBA and ABA veteran who once earned $210,000 a season, sat alone and destitute in his furnitureless apartment in Greensboro, N.C. His wife and children had left him, and the former All-Star forward spent much of his time watching films of his biggest plays. A movie projector was one of the few items not seized by his creditors.
•In 1972 Duane Thomas led the Dallas Cowboys to victory in the Super Bowl. Five years later, almost to the day, the erstwhile $100,000-a-year running back and his pregnant wife appeared in a Dallas court to file a voluntary bankruptcy petition, stating their assets at $4.66 and their debts at $26,979. "It was just one of those things that happen," said Thomas, who is now out of football.
•When he played for the Cowboys, Craig Morton was known as the Prince of Greenville Avenue, a Dallas disco area. He lived from day to day, spent freely—and went bankrupt. Now that Morton is happily remarried and resettled in Denver where he quarterbacks the Broncos, friends say he has gotten a grip on life—but he also has debts. Ten days before the Super Bowl he was tackled by a $34,635 Federal income tax lien and a $38,000 debt to a New York bank.
Careless, carefree spending is ruinous, but athletes are also easy marks for bad investment advice and crooked agents. Basketball players Jerry Lucas and Nate Thurmond lost $60,000 and $40,000, respectively, in a marina-hotel project in San Francisco. In 1976 Brooks Robinson lost $100,000 when a sporting goods store went into hock.
Last winter agent Richard Sorkin was given up to three years in the slammer for ripping off 50 athletes for more than $1 million. Islander Bobby Nystrom got hit for $145,000 and Ranger Ron Greschner for $86,000, and a $30,000 loss forced ex-Bullet Dennis DuVal into bankruptcy. "He took every cent I had," says DuVal, 25, who now works as a deputy sheriff in Onondaga County, N.Y. "The other guys can keep playing and earn some more money. He's ruined my life."
Will future pros be wiser, will they use their time in college to gain the knowledge they need to manage their money? Pitt All-America Randy Holloway, a defensive lineman who dropped out of school after being drafted by the Vikings, says. "I can delay my education. But you can't delay football. That's where the money is."
Fans speak out in next week's third report on money. Are they turned off by big salaries? Do they blame players or owners for today's turmoil?