Once again, it is the time of the year when the National Basketball Association has its play-offs. This year's playoffs have already had some dramatic moments on and off the court, and many people are already citing them as future classics. I can (and will) go into more detail about them, but I only mention them because professional sports often brings up the issue of why athletes are paid so much. Indeed, the NBA has the highest paid athletes in the world, with many star players making in the range of twenty million dollars a year, not even counting endorsement income.
But one of the best ways to look at the money made in the NBA isn't to look at the highest paid athletes: it is to look at the lowest paid. In the NBA, players can be called up from the minor league for a ten day contract, where they play for ten days (which may translate to four or five games). This salary is pro-rated to the NBA's minimum wage of 500,000 a year. Currently, it comes out to about 30,000 dollars for ten days of basketball. Players who are signing a ten day contract are usually the back-up to the back-ups, filling out the end of a team's dozen players. It is likely that they will play only a few minutes of garbage time. Although they also have to attend practice and training, they are basically being paid 30,000 dollars (along with the chance to travel for free) for what might amount to 10 or 20 minutes of playing basketball.
Pretty sweet deal, all things considered.
I've gone into some detail about the technicalities of the NBA's employment structure (a structure that is fairly typical for the United State's Big Three sports leagues) to show just how stark the contrast is between the salaries of professional athletes and the salaries of...pretty much everyone else. For ten days of nominal work, a bench warmer basketball player makes as much money as some professionals with graduate degrees might make in a year. These scales of money are so different it is somewhat hard to comprehend. And the bitterness it engages is somewhat understandable: there are players who have gotten paid as much for a single rebound or assist as a teacher working with disadvantaged children, or a firefighter risking their life, might make in a year.
One of the counters to the argument that professional athletes get paid too much is that they get paid what people are willing to pay them. Their salary is distributed across many fans, and if someone (or many someones) feel that going to a basketball game, or wearing a basketball jersey, makes them ten dollars happier, than it isn't our place to disagree.
But my own argument is it is a false dilemma. I guess if someone had an omniscient and omnipotent control of the economy, we could redirect those resources away from basketball players and towards our country's neglected schoolteachers, nurses and other photogenically long-suffering human services workers. But barring such a development, the fact that athletes get money and respect doesn't mean that other workers don't. It is not, except in the most abstract way, a zero-sum game.
And this is where my personal take on the matter comes in: I have a graduate degree in education. This has not produced much success for me career-wise, and this year I have applied to perhaps twenty different positions, with so far a result of two "maybes". Some of the hiring processes for these jobs are stuck in limbo, with application cycles that go on for three or six months with no clear answer available about whether the job has even closed. In other words, my talents as an educated professional don't seem to be too well respected. If there is really that much objection to the emphasis society puts on athletics, on the fact that people are courted and paid millions of dollars for chasing a ball around, then perhaps the solution isn't to grumble about the success of those people, but to show respect and attention to the people who need it. It is a case of "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness": if showing more respect to teachers, social workers, first responders and other people who are underappreciated is an issue, then...well, show respect to those people. The only thing stopping people from doing so is their own apathy. I don't really care that a basketball player is making enough money for me to retire on for grinding out some garbage time in the fourth quarter, and in fact I am happy for him. Talking about athlete's salaries is a red herring and an excuse, when the tools to show appreciation to underappreciated workers are already available.