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Original Issue


Athletes could earn goodwill by giving back some loot

Perhaps you saw the news that three-time NBA MVP Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers voluntarily surrendered $100,000 of his $3.1 million 1990-91 salary. Also in L.A., a couple of months ago, Raider quarterback Jay Schroeder asked that $200,000 of his $1 million salary be taken back, because, as he told Raider boss Al Davis, "I'm not a million-dollar quarterback." Davis agreed to split the difference and cut Schroeder by a hundred grand.

I think we're onto something here. The idea of rich and famous athletes giving back money is the best thing to come along in sports since arena pizza delivery. There are sound, practical reasons for an athlete to give back part of his salary, and the concept would be a boon for fans, too.

Let's face it, my own exhaustive research suggests that 99% of the American public thinks that today's athletes are overpaid ingrates who aren't worth a portion of what they're making, and the other 1% thinks they're worse. So, jocks, here's the chance to turn it around, to rid yourselves of that money-for-nothing rap.

Needless to say, athletes with specific public relations problems should strongly consider a Give-Back. Zeke Mowatt of the New England Patriots, he of the unsavory locker room behavior, is definitely ripe for a Give-Back. So is Dallas Maverick Roy Tarpley and any other athlete who has been suspended for substance abuse. Rookies who expect to get in trouble might consider having a Give-Back written into their contracts, to head that p.r. problem off at the pass, so to speak.

Give-Backs would add a whole new dimension for fans, too. "Well, Montana leads the league in passing efficiency and, hey, darn if he doesn't have the highest G-B, too." (The hyphenated form of Give-Back, G-B, would have to be used in the stat columns to distinguish it from GB, for Games Behind.) Imagine the suspense at a heavyweight boxing match with the introduction of the G-B element. Before the weigh-in, each fighter would submit a G-B figure. Then, on fight night, the ring announcer would intone: "Ladies and gentlemen, weighing in at 260 pounds and giving back $50,000 of his purse, George Foreman!"

The G-B would open up a new vault of rich sports clichès. That up-and-coming young hockey player from Moosejaw could gain a legion of fans right away if he said: "Sure, I think Jean-Paul's stickwork is great. But what I really admire about the guy is his high G-B rating." And it would be a natural for most NFL coaches. "Yeah, Reggie's a dad-gummed, rip-snortin' terror out there. But what our club really 'spects about him is that ol' G-B leadership he gives us off the field."

Where would the G-B money go? Well, in the case of college and pro football, it could be kept in a special fund to purchase footballs; these days it seems that a two-yard punt return is reason enough for a player to run off the field with a trophy ball tucked under his arm. But for the most part, G-B allocation would be left up to the athlete. Magic, for example, was very specific. His Give-Back gave the Lakers room to maneuver around the NBA's salary cap, thus enabling the team to acquire Golden State's Terry Teagle. Nobody heard Magic say, "Take my hundred K. and go get Chuck Nevitt."

Originality should be encouraged, though. Instead of giving his money back to the Raiders, who have enough of it. Schroeder might have sent it along as consolation to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce for having lost their team. Mowatt, who makes about $650,000, should think about making a G-B to the Massachusetts chapter of NOW. Hospitals, charities, orphanages and sportswriters' pension funds are all G-B possibilities.

The GBGB (Give-Back Governing Board) would divvy up G-Bs from those players who simply want to unload some cash and don't care where it goes. (Many athletes already handle their personal finances that way.) Outside every pro sports stadium in America, the home team would place one of those huge fund-drive thermometers quantifying its players' G-B accomplishments. Scoreboards would flash G-B messages throughout the game, perhaps in place of dot races and beer ads. Think how much happier the Minnesota Twins would have felt this season if they had finished first in the G-B race and not just first in the GB race (29 behind the A's). "Sure, our team stinks," their fans could say, "but these guys have hearts of gold."

But let's not lay it all at the athletes' feet—this G-B thing might be good for all of us. Thousand points of light and so forth. Every time an athlete makes a G-B, for example, his or her agent might think about making a smaller G-B, say, 15% of the client's. Team owners, general managers, broadcasters—all of them could afford sizable G-Bs.

Sportswriters, too? Sure. I'm willing to step up and be counted. But as in all things, there should be reason. Figuring that Magic gave $100,000 out of a yearly take of more than $10 million in salary and other income, well, it's just a matter of figuring out who's most deserving of my 10 bucks.