Rethinking The Superstar Athlete Model In The Age Of COVID-19

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 08: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after his ... [+] basket and LA Clippers foul during a 112-103 Lakers win at Staples Center on March 08, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this…


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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 08: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts after his … [+] basket and LA Clippers foul during a 112-103 Lakers win at Staples Center on March 08, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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The coronavirus descended on our fragile planet in December of 2019 and the devastation has affected every aspect of our life. No country, demographic, or industry has proven immune from the deadly virus; and sports are no exception. Team or individual, amateur or professional, scripted or non-scripted, no sport has been immune from this pandemic.



Case in point, let’s look at the NBA’s player pay. NBA players are well-compensated. No doubt about that. The average player makes $7 million per year. But as May gets closer and NBA pay checks will cease to be sent, since there is no longer a season, what happens to those players on rosters who are not at the top of the salary rung? The median NBA income is only $2 million per year. To this group of players, going without pay for an extended amount of time might pose serious economic ramifications.

“I would say out of 450 players150 probably are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” said Portland Trail Blazer’s star, CJ McCollum during a recent interview on ESPN. This came as a shock to the casual sports fan in a league of millionaires and superstars. Clearly, LeBron, Steph, Russ, and KD will not worry about car payments and mortgage insurance with the postponement or cancelling of a season. The superstars are often the voices we’re hearing, but are they really the player representatives we should be listening to?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 17: Commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver (L) and broadcaster Robin … [+] Roberts speak onstage during the TIME 100 Health Summit at Pier 17 on October 17, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TIME 100 Health Summit )

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James, one of the shrewdest business people in professional sports, who surrounds himself with best-in-class professionals, said he would not play in an empty arena. But what happens to the 150 paycheck-to-paycheck players? Is LeBron and his $90 million per year earnings the best voice for the players? What about the players who don’t have huge guaranteed contacts and enough assets to ensure comfort for a lifetime or more? This is the group that needs to be advising the league and their fans on when and under what circumstances the players are ready to come back.

What about those athletes making the league minimum, the recent call-ups, the practice squad player in the NFL, or even the #126 on the PGA Tour’s official winnings list?

Recently, superstars Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka gave the thumbs down to the new upstart Premier Golf League. The PGL might have guaranteed a level of compensation for all playing members, which could have ushered in a serious challenge to the long-standing meritocracy of professional golf. The PGA was also quick to say that any player who joined the PGL would not be able to play on the regular tour. This might illicit a separate discussion about the Sherman Anti-Trust act, but that’s for another day. “Rors” earned almost $23 million in the 2018-19 season – as well as another $30 million in endorsement income – putting him well over $50 million for the year. Meanwhile, the #60 player on the Tour earned a little less than $2 million and maybe another $200,000 for endorsements. Taking out federal taxes, a multitude of state taxes, commercial flights, mortgages, and a myriad of expenses that the non-superstar must deal with every day, and suddenly a budget means something. Now take away one third of a season, with no chance to makeup that lost income and Ponte Vedra, we have a problem. Yes, the PGA did say that they would let players and caddies “borrow” some funds – up to $100,000 for the top players – to be counted against future earnings. How reassuring.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA – MARCH 12: Brooks Koepka of the United States on the 11th tee during … [+] the first round of The PLAYERS Championship on The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on March 12, 2020 in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

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When superstars speak for a league, is that the best voice of the rank and file? When Rory says no to a guaranteed $240 million to be divided up among 50 players over 18 weeks, how can his interests be aligned with the journeyman playing some 25 weeks on average with no guaranteed endorsements to buffet their bank account?

Steph, Russ, KD, and James might well be the reason that the fans pack the stands and networks pay billions for viewer rights. But, the NBA has 450 players, 35 of which are the highest paid athletes in the world, and sadly 150 of which live check-to-check and cannot afford to lose a third of the season and introduce financial hardship. Should a select few be speaking for an entire league? As the leagues, tours, and federations contemplate cancellation, suspension or restarting, soundbites and opinions have to be more inclusive of the entire union membership. For team sports, the best teams work as a cohesive unit. The same principal should apply for individual sports. When the entire membership is involved in the decision-making and not just the superstar royalty, the sport itself will be better off.

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