I’d planned not to revisit this tiff I had Thursday with Darren Rovell. For one, the idea of perpetuating a “controversy” is distasteful to me, especially when what happened here was primarily a difference of opinion. Folks like to see “Twitter fights,” but I didn’t see it as such. Rovell did something I found problematic, and I said something about it.
OK, I said a lot about it (that link has the full wrap-up of the Twitter fun). And I think I should have. I could care less about the general level of substance in his tweets, and I don’t care how many people follow him or me. What I do care about is the way media figures manipulate the existing tensions between athletes, fans and the people who cover them.
When I did radio, it was the first time I was able to really get a handle on how sports fans viewed athletes and the privileges they receive. It wasn’t pretty. While I saw clear exploitation of college athletes, so many of them saw guys who were “going to school for free” like those fans wished they’d been able to. They asked why on Earth someone “playing a kid’s game” would deserve to make so much money. Which is to say, they exposed themselves as envious and greedy. It was all about what they wished someone would do for them, even though their decidedly average existences could be explained very clear: they, unlike those athletes, were decidedly average.
I don’t mean that in a creational standpoint. We’re all God’s children, if you believe in such things. I mean, when it comes to marketable skills, they just don’t have any that necessitate special treatment. Had they been special, maybe they could have gone to school for free. Athletes aren’t the only ones who get scholarships, after all. Were they exceptional, it wouldn’t be so hard to knock out those student loans. It makes people uncomfortable, because so much of youth involves people affirming to kids how special they are, but the cold, hard truth is that most people in this world can be easily replaced with no one noticing they were gone. More importantly, when someone picks most of us, no one will notice we’re there unless we introduce ourselves on the first day. This is life near the median. That is life for most of the world.
But these athletes we watch? They’re special, relative to their jobs. Think of all the people who have tried to play a sport and would have done so as long as their talents provided enough of a return to make it worthwhile. At every step, the labor pool gets whittled away. Not because guys get bored. No, it’s just because they aren’t good enough. While there’s somewhere for an average accountant to work, there is no place for an average defensive lineman or small forward. Only the best of the best need apply. And guess what? That corner you see getting burned every week, or that basketball player who can’t make a free throw? They’re both among the best of the best.
As a result, they make a lot of money. There’s a basic supply and demand issue that I’m not going to bother to explain. Just know: in a billion dollar business with so few qualified workers, employees are gonna make a shitload of money. The only reason to have a problem with that is if you have a problem with yourself. And you need to get over it.
The easy argument is that sports aren’t important; therefore, athletes shouldn’t be highly paid. That’s stupid. It comes with an implicit paternalism that should make your stomach hurt. There’s big money in sports. It’s not because we, the public, overemphasize them (though that may be true). It’s because sports and entertainment are among the few products that everyone likes. They make people happy. They bring people together. They know few bounds with respect to race, class and gender. And people will always be more interested in fun than the alternative. Nothing to apologize for there.
This means owners of sports teams can, literally, get a lot of money from everyone. So they do. And once they do, they have to compensate those who make it possible. Those are the athletes. Many would say athletes lucky for it, but that seems like the sort of thing to take up with your deity. It must be “luck” in a divine or supernatural sense. Because, trust me, 99.9999% of those guys making zillions of dollars worked their asses off to get what they get paid. They worked in college for free. They lifted weights in high school when cats like me were playing video games. They put in their time. And then, into their 20s, they got paid big money. It’s not like they won the lottery. What a person “deserves” doesn’t mean too much to me, but you’ll have a helluva time saying any professional athlete did not “earn” his or her riches. If you can, I recommend you click this link.
The owners? Oh, they deserve whatever mind-blowing sum they bank. Why? Uhhh…cuz they’re owners? You got anything on that? Cuz I can’t think of why their money isn’t worthy of comparisons from Rovell.
Or, Rovell could talk about his salary. In fact, I asked him to. Since he said the point was to point out the differences between what regular people make and athletes, just to make a point, make the point about yourself, Darren. I challenged Rovell to compare his salary to the median salary of Buffalo, and he wouldn’t do it. I was willing to do the same. So, if we’re gonna do this, let’s talk about how much more we make than the average person. Yanno, just to show the difference. I know what the difference is. I was making around 39k two and a half years ago. I ain’t making 39k anymore. And guess what? I ain’t making as much money as Darren Rovell.
Rovell didn’t do that, though. Your guess for why is as good as mine.
Many of my colleagues foolishly get caught up in this madness of asking whether or not people “deserve” what they have. They want to make sure players are “appreciative” and humble. God forbid they offend the insecure people who watch — and cover — them, right? By doing this, they either knowingly or negligently foster fans’ irrationality.
And this is why cats like Rovell piss me off so much. It is irresponsible to advance a narrative that requires athletes to demonstrate why they’re worth what they’re paid while never questioning how the people who sign the friggin’ checks are able to do so, even though there are way more people capable of running an NFL franchise than there are people who could play for one. People in our position, especially someone who claims that “sports business” is his specialty, are doing everyone a disservice by singling out players as such. Seriously, someone would juxtapose what Mario Williams makes in a day and a half while never asking what James Dolan makes in the same time period by virtue of running the business his rich father built? Huh?
Rovell knows how markets work, so he knows why Mario Williams makes so much money and teachers and firefighters don’t. That is, unless he doesn’t know that, which begs the question: what kind of “expert” are you, Darren?
So that’s why I had to bomb on the dude. It would be much easier for us all to enjoy sports if we didn’t look for reasons to resent those we claim to revere. It would be easier to enjoy them if we didn’t have to wade through the media’s encouragement of these small, petty emotions. And it’s highly problematic to give people information that exacerbates those feelings just because “people want to know that stuff.”
Stuff like what Rovell did is why athletes don’t want to talk to us, and why many thing we’re out to make them look bad. What Rovell tweeted about Mario was for that exact purpose. No, there’s nothing about being paid that “looks bad,” but it sure does look bad to the resentful to see someone they find undeserving make more than them. Rovell knows that. If he doesn’t, he might want to make some friends. Like, maybe one or two. Cuz he must have none if he doesn’t get this.
Before I go, I’ll give you one last thing to consider. After I told Rovell he was fostering resentment among fans, he sent out a poll asking fans if they were resentful of athletes’ salaries. While he was at it, he should have asked if they were racist and used those results to determine whether we have a problem with race in America. Never mind the absurdly small sample he used — n=126, last time I checked. Let’s consider the obvious weaknesses of doing a survey using self-reported data. Anyone worth his salt in statistical analysis knows that would be useless, and such a person would know those numbers shouldn’t be shared with any authority. To distribute something like that as a way to prove a point is intellectually dishonest. It’s stupid. And I guarantee Rovell knows this. Unless he, himself, is stupid.
Which is it?
So there it is. These analyses from Rovell are rarely about owners. I’d say “never,” for I’ve never seen such a comparison, but I could be wrong. If it’s just about illustrating disparities between the common man and the rich, talk about the people who are really rich. If it’s about who does or doesn’t deserve something, Rovell needs to take Econ 101.
In other words, either Rovell is OK with the incongruent ways people resent wealth in this country. Or, he has no idea what he’s talking about in his area of specialty and authority.
I’ll let him pick which one it is. Either way, it’s a problem. It makes him look like a fraud.
And it makes players look bad for simply being really, really good at their jobs, which is the sort of behavior I refuse to let slide.