Misplaced Priority and Its Social Impacts

Salaries of Top-Level Professional Sports

The top 10 picks in last year’s National Football League (NFL) draft signed contracts that guaranteed an average of $18.7 million over the lifetime of their contracts, usually four-to-six years.[1] This is the guaranteed amount; that means they could earn even more, perhaps much more, if they perform to their billings.  The average salary per season in 2008 for Major League Baseball (MLB) players was over $3M![2] The average salary for the 2008-2009 season for the National Basketball Association (NBA) players is $5.3M![3] The average earning of the 120 major-college football coaches in 2007 was over $1M![4] Among the 65 colleges that made the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 2006, at least 20 of those colleges’ basketball coaches were making over $1M for 2006-2007![5]

Salaries of Top-Level Academics

How do the above salaries compare with the average salary of full professors in doctoral-granting universities in the U.S.?  For the academic year 2007-2008, the average salary of full professors in public doctoral-granting universities in the U.S. was $109.6K, and the corresponding salary in private doctoral-granting universities in the U.S. was $144.3K.   Furthermore, this average salary for the two highest-paid universities in the U.S., Rockefeller University and Harvard University, was respectively $191.2K and $184.8K.[6]

If we compare the above salaries for professional athletes and major-college football and basketball coaches with those for full professors in doctoral-granting universities, it is clear that there is a huge gap.  What are the social implications of this huge gap?  This article discusses the social implications of this huge gap in terms of the athletes themselves, our youths, ordinary citizens, and the competitiveness of our country.

Salaries of Professional Sports Just Below the Top Level

Before we discuss the social implications, there is another important set of statistics that we also need to know, i.e., the salaries of athletes who in every respect are excellent athletes but for one reason or another have not yet made it to the top level of the professional hierarchy.  For example, there are various levels of minor league professional baseball, with the highest minor league level being the AAA level, which is just below MLB.  For a AAA baseball player who has not reached playing in the Major League level yet, his salary is usually only a few thousand dollars per month, with the minimum being $2,150 per month,[7] although a AAA baseball player who has played in the Major League but has been sent down to the Minor League could be making significantly more.  Thus there is a huge drop in salary, as much as a factor of 50 to 100, from the Major League to AAA which is just one level below the Major League.  Another example is the Arena Football League (AFL), which is just one level below the NFL in the U.S.  The average salary in the AFL is only about $30-50K per year.[8] A third example is professional basketball in the NBA Development League, which is considered the closest to the NBA in the U.S.  Lance Allred and Andrew Bogut went head-to-head in college, and were evenly matched in points and rebounds.  As a matter of fact, they competed in 2005 for the NCAA Men rebounding title, with Bogut finishing second and Allred third.  Bogut was picked first in the 2005 NBA college draft and makes $4.6M a year, and is now the starting center for the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA.  Allred, however, was not one of the 60 players drafted by the NBA, and now plays for the Idaho Stampede in the NBA Development League and makes $15K per year.[9]

Tremendous Rewards and Pressure to Reach the Highest Professional Sports Level

The financial compensations of the top-notch athletes and coaches are so phenomenally large, so that the earnings from one, two, or three years are already more than most people can earn in a lifetime.  On the other hand, if an athlete does not make it to the highest professional level, then there is a huge drop in salary, like a reduction of at least by a factor of 10 and often by a factor of 100.  Furthermore, the amount of fame and endorsement money that they can get is also strongly coupled to where they end up in the professional hierarchy.  Under these circumstances there are tremendous rewards and pressure on the athletes to try to make it to the highest professional level or to the highest performance in that professional level.  Is it then surprising that they may do anything, including taking forbidden performance enhancing drugs, to try to get a competitive edge?  Thus we see so many top-notch athletes being exposed to have taken illegal drugs to enhance their performance in baseball, football, track and field, cycling, swimming, etc.[10] This drive is often achieved with single-mindedness so that they neglect their education, learning to get along with other people including their teammates, learning to manage their finances, and learning to survive successfully in the real world.  The end result is that so many of these athletes can not survive, and definitely not thrive, in their post-athletic life in the real world.

Odds of Becoming a NFL Player

Seeing the glamour and riches of the athletes who make it to the top of their professional sport, many of our youths also aspire to be like them, without understanding the tremendous odds against them.  For example, what are the chances of becoming an NFL Player?  The answer to that question can be found in the NFL Players Association website’s FAQs:  “While many young people every year set their goals on becoming NFL players, it is extremely difficult to reach that level.  Statistically of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football every year, only 215 will ever make an NFL roster.  That is 0.2%!  Even of the 9,000 players that make it to the college level only 310 are invited to the NFL scouting combine, the pool from which teams make their draft picks.  As you can see, most people who want to become NFL players will not.  Therefore it is very important to come up with alternative plans for the future.”[11] Similar odds also exist for other sports.  It is also important to know that the average playing time in professional sports can be very short.  For example, the average length of an NFL career is only about three and a half seasons!

Behavior Problems of Top-Level Professional Athletes

Besides the tremendous odds against youths becoming professional athletes at the highest level, there is the issue whether these athletes are really good role models for our youths to emulate when you consider the various social problems so many of these professional athletes bring upon themselves.  There are many examples in almost every major professional sport.  Here are a few examples:

  • In MLB, we have all-time greats like Barry Bonds (the all-time homerun hitter), Roger Clemens (seven-time Cy Young Award winner as the best pitcher), and Alex Rodriguez (highest paid baseball player who several years ago signed a 10-year contract for $250M) either being accused of (and with very creditable evidence) or having admitted to taking illegal performance enhancing drugs.
  • In the NFL, we have Plexico Burress (star receiver of the 2008 Superbowl champion New York Giants and who caught the winning touchdown in the 2008 Superbowl) being arrested for criminal possession of a handgun and for accidentally shooting himself in the leg in a nightclub in late 2008, and who has been suspended by the New York Giants. We have Adam “Pacman” Jones (star cornerback and return specialist of the Tennessee Titans and more recently of the Dallas Cowboys) being involved in numerous off-the-field incidents, including assaults, shootings, threats, public intoxication, and being suspended twice by the NFL. We have Terrell Owens (star receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys) who had repeatedly destroyed team unity via his verbal outbursts and antics.
  • In the NBA, we have Jayson Williams (former star player of the New Jersey Nets) involved in several shooting incidents and an accidental shooting death of his limo driver and subsequent cover ups. We have Stephon Marbury (who until this week was under contract with the New York Knicks for the current season for $21M), but for various reasons (including feuds between Marbury and the Knicks’ front office and coaches, and the Knicks wanting to build a harmonious team for the future), the Knicks decided not to play him during the current season. Furthermore, due to injuries to other players, when the Knicks wanted to play him during a 11/26/08 game, Marbury refused to enter the game, incurring a $400K fine from the Knicks. Finally during this past week, the Knicks and Marbury agreed on a financial buyout on their “divorce” and terminated their contract with the Knicks paying him about $19M even though he didn’t play a single game this season!
  • In Track and Field, we have Marion Jones (probably the most celebrated women’s track and field athlete and winner of three gold medals and two bronze medals in the 2000 Summer Olympics) finally admitting taking forbidden steroids after repeatedly denying so, including in testimonies in front of two grand juries. She had to relinquish all her Olympic medals. We have Ben Johnson (the Canadian national hero after he beat one of the all-time greats Carl Lewis for the gold medal in the 100 meter dash in the 1988 Olympics while breaking his own world record) was stripped of his gold medal and world record a few days later with a positive test of steroid use.
  • In cycling, the 2006 Tour de France winner Floyd Landis of the U.S. was stripped of his championship, and for the 2007 and 2008 Tour de France several race leaders from several other countries were also removed from the competition after testing positive to illegal performance enhancing drugs.

Good Role Models for Our Youths to Emulate?

This list can go on and on for other sports at the professional level as well at the top-tier college level.  Of course, there are many top-notch professional and college athletes who are ethical, follow all the rules, and are great role models for the youths.   But it seems that the great disparity in recognition and financial rewards between the champion and the runner-up, or the intensification of the winner take all reward system, has created an environment that drives many athletes to be willing to risk everything, including their ethics and their health, in order to increase their chances of reaching the performance pinnacle.  Furthermore, these top athletes are often so pampered that they never learned how to behave as decent human beings after their limelight is over.  It seems then that the current professional athletes are not good role models for our youths to emulate.

Who Can Help Our Country Compete Economically in a World of Global Competition?

University professors are the people teaching our youths the skills and intellectual creativity to drive our economic engine so that we can compete successfully in the world of global competition, which is especially important when the U.S. needs to compete successfully at the top of the economic food chain due to our relatively high cost of living.  Our professional athletes are not going to be the people who can help our country to maintain or regain our position as the richest and most powerful country in the world, but our university professors will be among the most important people who can help our country achieve that objective.  It seems then that the potential positive social impacts on our society from our university professors are significantly larger than from our professional athletes.  Yet as we pointed out at the beginning of this article, the average salary of professional athletes is greater than the average salary of university professors by an order of magnitude or more.  To further illustrate this point, the highest paid professor in the field of physics for the whole University of California 10-campus system is David J. Gross, a Nobel Prize physicist and the Director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara.  His salary for the academic year 2007-2008 was $254,900,[12] which pales in comparison with the salaries in professional football, basketball, or baseball, and is less than two-thirds of the 2008 minimum salary of $390K in MLB!  This clearly makes us wonder whether our society has misplaced our priorities.

Is It Simply Just the Consequences of Supply and Demand?

One may argue that the salaries of professional athletes are just the consequences of supply and demand.  Their high salaries are just reflective of the fact that there are great public interests for professional sports.  One may also hear that the large financial compensations for football and basketball coaches are justified because a successful football or basketball program can help student recruitment and alumni contributions. All of these actually point to the underlying issue, i.e., has our society as a whole misplaced our priorities?  Why should a school kid who is a top-performing athlete gets much more recognition and press coverage than a school kid who is a top-performing student in the classroom or a student who is a leader in doing community activities?  Why should our media always put significantly more coverage on negative-behaving events than positive-behaving events?[13] We should understand that notoriety is also something that youths want to emulate even if the events leading to notoriety are not something to be proud of.  We know from sociology and child psychology that positive role models can do wonders to young minds and negative role models can destroy young lives.  Doesn’t winning a Nobel Prize or other prestigious academic honors also help with student recruitment and bring in research contracts?  Doesn’t achieving academic distinction also help with alumni contributions?  Doesn’t achieving academic breakthroughs results in positive impacts on our society?   Perhaps if our society has consistently emphasized and recognized the activities and achievements that can impact our society in a positive way, especially from a longer-term perspective, there will be a corresponding change in the supply and demand equation.

Does It Impact the Pocket Book of Ordinary Citizens?

There is also the issue of whether the high salaries and endorsements of professional athletes also financially affect ordinary citizens who do not attend or watch these sporting events?  The answer is definitely yes for the following reasons.  The government at all levels usually subsidizes building sports stadiums either directly or indirectly.  Direct subsidies include city, county, or state funds allocated as part of the stadium building budget.  Indirect subsidies include various tax incentives, such as reduced property tax from the local government and tax-exempt bonds issued by the federal, state, and local governments.  These government subsidies are funded by taxpayer dollars.  The local government also needs to spend money on various infrastructure projects, such as building new sewers and roads, or public transportation lines and stations.

Professional team owners want the media broadcasting of their games to reach as many people as possible to maximize the media broadcasting revenue.  For example, broadcasting certain professional team’s games may be included as part of the basic cable package, which gives cable companies an argument to raise the rate of the basic cable package.  This means that all subscribers of the basic cable package have to pay the higher rate even if they don’t plan to watch any of that professional team’s games.

New stadiums are built not necessarily because the existing stadiums do not have sufficient seat capacity or are in disrepair, but because the owners want more and better luxury boxes which can bring in significant amount of revenue.  Furthermore, unlike gate receipts, a team does not have to share the revenue from luxury boxes with the league and other teams; so 100% of the luxury box revenues remain in the home team’s pocket.

There is of course the counter argument that a professional sports team brings people to the games and increases tax revenues for the local government, and professional sports teams make a city more attractive for other businesses to locate in that city.  There is some validity to such a counter argument, but my guess is that if one does a detailed analysis, the financial gains do not match the expenses, except for the owners, the players, and businesses that are located in the vicinity of the sports stadiums or are directly involved with those professional sports teams. The real winners usually are the team owners and the players.  Both groups are already making a lot of money; so we are asking ordinary citizens to use their tax dollars to make these rich people even richer.

There is also a cascading effect on the pocket of ordinary citizens, independent of whether or not they watch the professional sports.  Televisions and various sponsors, such as companies who make sneakers, apparel, various foods and drinks, and many other products being pitched by these high-paying athletes, all raise the prices of their products in order to pay for the high endorsements received by the athletes.  Thus even old ladies in tennis shoes who never watch any of the sporting events share in paying these professional athletes and coaches the phenomenal salaries they are now receiving.


There is great disparity between the salaries of top professional athletes/coaches and people in other professions, including top-notch academics.  The chances of becoming a major league professional athlete are extremely small, and the salaries of professional athletes just one level below the major professional leagues, together with the corresponding recognition and endorsement revenue, are no longer large, and perhaps non-existent for endorsement revenue. It is really unrealistic for the majority of our youths to aspire to become top-level professional athletes.  Furthermore, the top-level professional athletes as a group are not the idols that our youths should emulate. The high salaries and endorsements of top level professional athletes and coaches affect the pocket book of ordinary citizens independent of whether they attend or watch any of the sporting events.  It is clear that the top-level professional athletes are not the ones who can help our country to compete successfully economically in a world with global competition.  Our society should examine carefully our priorities, because the social implications are huge in determining the characters and welfare of our children and grandchildren.

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/sports/football/nfl/2008-04-23-first-round-money_N.htm.

[2] http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080401&content_id=2479371&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb.

[3] http://blog.heritage.org/2008/11/03/obama-throws-up-brick-for-nba/.

[4] http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2007-12-04-coaches-pay_N.htm.

[5] http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/mensbasketball/2007-03-08-coaches-salary-cover_N.htm.

[6] http://chronicle.texterity.com/chroniclesample/20080418-sample/?pg=19.

[7] http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_average_minor_league_baseball_players_salary.

[8] http://wiki.answers.com/Q/As_of_2007_what_is_the_base_salary_for_an_Arena_League_football_player.

[9] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7239948.

[10] There has not been much exposure about NBA players, but the NBA has the weakest drug testing policy.

[11] http://www.nflplayers.com/user/template.aspx?fmid=181&lmid=349&pid=0&type=l.

[12] http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20071115/news_1n15dynes.html.

[13] For a more detailed discussion of “Negative Versus Positive Media Reporting,” see the article with this title in http://www.dontow.com/Archived_PS_Articles/APS7-Media_Reporting.html.

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4 Responses to “Misplaced Priority and Its Social Impacts”

  1. Rick Braverman says:

    Don, thanks again for your thoughtful analysis of an interesting subject. You make many good points that I agree with. I have one observation to add: In a free society supply and demand determine results. The reality is that people are more interested in sports than academic achievements and thus are willing to pay big bucks to attend the games etc. Society after all is made up of individuals. Your goals are commendable but not likely to happen.

  2. Don Tow says:

    Rich, thanks for your comments. Yes, the priority of our current society is such that sports heroes are more important, more famous, and more rewarded than academic heroes or other heroes that have greater impacts on the society. But how much of that kind of priority is nurtured by what we emphasize at home, in schools, in the mass media, etc. I doubt very much that small children will naturally have that kind of priority. That kind of priority is nurtured.

    That is precisely the point I am trying to make. From a long-term strategic planning point of view, is that the way we want it? If not, then we should seriously analyze how we have been nurturing that kind of priority, and take steps to change it. Or do we need to wait till our society deteriorate to great depths before we are willing to make changes?

    I agree that my goals are probably less likely to happen than to happen. But so many important events in history occurred against great odds, and the wise ones will anticipate and try to head off danger at the pass.

    Furthermore, the big bucks received by the athletes, coaches, and owners are not just being paid by the people who attend or watch the games, but by even ordinary citizens who do not attend or watch these games.

  3. Rick Braverman says:

    Don, again I agree with your premise. But how do we go about making the changes that you envision? Who will do what? The K-12 education system is not well. I do not see any attempt to make it better at present. The media reflects what people want etc. Will the new president address this issue? I doubt it. Will the congress do something? Will parents?

    We have a materialistic society. Sports is very important to most people (myself not included). What steps to you advocate to begin a change?

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