For those who are unaware, I’ve spent a lot of time writing for the opinion section of The Daily Campus, and for the better part of two semesters I’ve spent that time writing columns with a historical element. Now, that’s going to spill over into my sports column.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many more people became very acquainted with the definition of the term “essential worker.” This category of laborer covers medical workers, teachers, grocery workers and a myriad of other positions, but one position it certainly does not apply to is that of the professional athlete. 2020 saw professional sports all but cease for a time, before each league gradually figured out how to reopen. Despite the fact that we all learned the hard way that life does go on without professional athletics, teams continued to hand out massive paydays after play resumed. When Max Scherzer signed with the Mets last week, the contract he agreed to included $130 million over three years. That’s almost $5,000 an hour, about 330 times the New York minimum wage, to put it in perspective. Oh, and let me remind you that’s implying Scherzer will be working every hour of every day for the next three years.
Here’s where history comes into play. Spectator sports, while the highest level of competition is certainly a goal, are at their core an entertainment product. Such products have existed for millennia, but the compensation for the participants has greatly differed.
During the time of the Roman Empire, gladiatorial combat was the preference for many sports fans, but the binding agreements attached to the gladiators were about as far from the exorbitant contracts of today’s sports stars as possible. In fact, many gladiators weren’t paid at all. Those who competed were socially the lowest of the low, and usually their reward for a good performance was simply being granted the right to live another day.
Of course, athletes didn’t go from being literally enslaved to earning millions overnight; over the course of centuries, society’s view on the profession changed gradually. Let’s fast-forward to about 100 years ago, a time when baseball’s current professional format was still relatively new, football and hockey were in their infancy and basketball was still a few decades away.
Luckily, evidence exists of a contract signed by the one-and-only George Herman “Babe” Ruth, exactly 100 years ago in 1921. The “American League Base Ball Club of New York” agreed to pay Ruth, who would go on to have one of the most legendary careers of any major leaguer ever, a lump sum of $5,000 dollars, with a condition that he’d earn an extra $50 for each home run he hit that year. By the end of the year Ruth had hit 59 home runs, so his total earnings for the year ended up equaling $7,950. Adjusted for inflation, that had Babe earning a little over $120,000 in 1921. That’s certainly a really good salary, but it’s not anywhere near the crazy territory Scherzer and today’s stars populate.
However, that was 1921; 1922 was a different story. In 1922, according to sabr.org, Babe Ruth made $52,000. His salary would peak in 1930 at $80,000, which would be equivalent to about $1.2 million in today’s terms. Sure, that’s a lot more than what he made 10 years previous, but it’s a lot closer to that than to Scherzer territory.
The bottom line is this: Athletes deserve to be paid, and that’s a fact. We’ve advanced past the brutal days of Roman blood-sport, but unfortunately the pendulum may have swung a bit too far in the other direction. If perhaps the most famous baseball player in history only made a fraction of what today’s top athletes make, it might be time to evaluate if the exponential growth that just keeps happening makes sense.
Sports stars are not essential workers, but many of them get paid far more. While the jobs they do are certainly ingrained in our society, and totally have their place, the world could be a very different place if some of the money that went to entertaining the masses with feats of athleticism was instead given to the people who make sure society can survive and thrive every day.