If you read that title and just assumed I was calling Russell Wilson an arrested development case, you outran your headlights.
I love Russell Wilson, always have. He may come off as a little corny, at times; a little Jack Armstrong All-American Boy (google it), rah-rah, Norman Rockwell “waif with the frog in his pocket” but he comes by it naturally. He’s a Virginia kid, like me, and I can tell you, first hand, that most Virginia kids, even now, are almost ruthlessly trained to be Polite, Courteous, Civil. Couple that kind of upright (some say “uptight”) personality with an almost freakish athletic ability and veins full of ice water, and you have a person you can stand with and admire and nothing about that has changed.
But Russell’s recent contract extravaganza, how ever much he may deserve to be the NFL’s highest-paid player, raised certain questions. Russell is the momentary (because his contract’s highest-paid status has about the same shelf life as milk) poster boy for what has come to be one of the most fevered of all societal hot-button issues: income/wage inequality.
It’s common knowledge that the sheer distance between the paychecks of average American workers and Upper Management of the companies for which they work has gotten seriously out of whack. Just about forty years ago, in 1980, the median household income was $43, 500. Salaries of CEOs and company presidents, at that time, averaged about $90K. It was not quite a 2/1 disparity and workers were able to tell themselves that, well, management should make more money than labor. Nobody loved the idea of earning half of what people doing less work were pulling down but it wasn’t driving activists into the streets.
Ten years later, in 1990, the median household income had only grown to $46,700, while CEOs and presidents routinely made around $150K. Not only that but middle management salaries has risen to over $80,000, and there were a lot more of those middle-man managers that ever before. Today, that average American working Joe makes a median household income of $61,400, while the average corporate CEO’s salary is – hang onto something – $15,100,000. Let me repeat that: FIFTEEN MILLION, ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS…a year. One Million, two hundred and fifty-eight thousand, three hundred and thirty-three dollars a month!
Fact: there are far more Average Joes than there are CEOs, and income disparity has become a genuine sticking point, even here in an age of a pathological liar as “president”, our complete loss of international standing, millions imperiled by the erosion of healthcare, a looming Constitutional scandal on a scale which America has never seen, and – oh, yeah, a climate crisis which could, VERY easily, result in the literal End of The World.
Russell’s situation got me thinking about this, as we watched him stride inevitably toward at least $35M per year. Again, I think that if anybody, any athlete, deserves to make THIRTY-FIVE MILLION a year, it’s Russell. But I look at that $35M and then look at what the Average American worker, who works no less hard and no fewer hours than the Wilsons and Bradys and Cousinses of the current NFL and I cringe at what it means.
I listen to sports radio daily, usually in the morning. They have a call-in segment and this was on my mind, so I called in and waited my turn. When the host answered and put me on the air, I started by asking, “Okay, where does this all end? What’s the ceiling?”
I don’t know what kind of morning the host was having but this question seemed to set him off. He’s an East Coast type who grew up listening to radio in Boston and New York and those big urban markets in which being provocative and aggressive and dismissive when talking to callers plays well and constantly states opinions as though he was reading them off stone tablets. He barged into what I was saying repeatedly, not allowing me to even frame the question, snapping out comments as though interrogating a murder suspect, to the point at which I finally stopped and asked, “Should I just hang up? Would that be better? I’ll hang up if you want.” He growled, “Go ahead” and then did the same thing again. What he was after was an opportunity I had taken away from him: the chance to hang up on me. If he agreed and let me hang up, I would have had an upper hand on him. So, he baited me, I stupidly fell for it, and then he did hang up on me.
I took this as a teachable moment: never try to discuss grown-up things with people whose jobs has enabled them to remain a teen-ager for life.
(I don’t know why I’m guarding this yoyos identity. It was Mike Salk, of the now-defunct “Brock & Salk” morning show on ESPN Seattle 710. I don’t trash breweries, wineries, or distilleries but, as far as I know, Salk is none of those, so, Mikey, here’s to you, BUD.)
But despite his sniffy dismissal of what I was saying, income inequality IS a grown-up subject and no amount of sports radio rah-rah is going to change that.
Here is a table, taken from Pew Research and Statista.com and CNBC. You’ll see the problem immediately…
Average NFL Salary Median Household Income Difference
1980: $90,102 $43,500 2.7 X
1990: $422,149 $46,700 9.4 X
2000: $1,056,300 $49,000 21.4 X
2010: $1,900,000 $49,445 38.4 X
2015: $2,100,000 $56,516 37.1 X
2018: $2,700,000 $61,372 43.99 X
Now this, remember, is the average salary of NFL players. Some make less and many make a LOT more and the few “lot more” skew that figure pretty far out of proportion. MOST NFL players make something between the league minimum of $480K and $1M, meaning that the average of even the lowest-paid players is still 8 times the average salary of an American working Joe . In the case of Russell Wilson’s new yearly gross, his contract comes to FIVE HUNDRED SEVENTY POINT THREE times what the Average American makes.
570.33 times what an average worker makes. 570.33 times what I make. And I’m not begrudging him this. But I do recognize that I’m a Seahawks fanboy and am not impartial. Non-Seahawks fans are probably hating Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins and all the other instant millionaires of pro sports, when they stop to think about it.
So, I come right back to my original question that triggered Little Mikey Salk: “Okay, where does this all end? What’s the ceiling?”
It is not AT ALL implausible to predict that, in maybe fifteen years or so, we’re talking about paying a better-quality NFL quarterback upwards of $75M to $100M a year. $50M is going to roll in here in about three to five years. Guaranteed.
Guys like Salk just revel in a story to tell and huge numbers as shiny baubles at which to marvel and chatter. In the middle of that abortive phone call, he snapped out his response to my question by saying, “We’re not there yet” and then repeated it, the time-honored device of people with no coherent answers, trying to disguise the fact that they have none. It appears to lend their lame deflection gravitas…or that’s what they think/hope. We just saw that in action, as Donald Trump flails away at obfuscating his neck-deep involvement in the Ukraine scandal: “I want Nothing. I want Nothing! No quid pro quo!!“…Or, as close as Donald Trump has ever come to Latin in his entire educationally-resistant life.
Well, regardless of what Salk and several dozen sports agents want to believe, there IS a ceiling and there IS a point at which Enough is Enough. No, as Salk observed, we’re not there…YET. But Salk’s clear implication was that he doesn’t see that day coming, maybe ever. Which is kinda like Salk standing on the bow of the Titanic, having a cabin boy nudge him and say, “Hey, looks like we’re headed for that big iceberg, over there.” To which Salk glances behind him and snaps, “We’re not there yet!”
And then repeats it, for impact.
And yet, all of us who call ourselves sports fans look around us and see signs of impending Trouble: the ongoing debate/emergency of concussions. Parents of today’s kids pointedly steering then away from contact sports like football but, oddly, not so much from hockey. Soccer, always a niche sport in the US – where we pointedly do NOT call it “football” – is evolving slowly into a mainstream sport, largely because many of those same parents saying “No mas”, to football have no reservations about soccer at all…despite the fact that soccer involves FAR more contact than it appears to the naked eyeball. In a BleacherReport.com report on Most Dangerous Sports, polling ER and sports doctors from around the world, soccer was on the list alright – in SIXTH place – in with such presumed dangerous sports as MMA, boxing, NASCAR, rugby, and the X-Games.
From Chris Mueller’s fine post on BleacherReport:
“I have had a few people question why Soccer is on the list. Let me give you a quick fact. In the last 12 years, when Hockey has had exactly 2 deaths on the ice world-wide, soccer has had over 70 deaths on the field in that time. If you have to wonder after that then I don’t know what to tell you.”
So, given that American parents ARE, after all, citizens of America (currently in the running for the title of “Dumbest Country on Earth”), is it any wonder that our young, uber-sensitive parental units are questioning the basis of sports as a class of activities for their kids? And as their regard for the enterprise goes down, questioning of astronomical salaries goes UP. But not just with the next generation…My own age group, that creaking 60 – 70 YO demographic, is old enough to remember a lot of that era when NFL players took full-time jobs in the off-season, just to make ends meet. I don’t think there are that many of us who want to roll back the calendar to that time. I think we are probably just fine with athletes making a GOOD living at a profession in which harming one’s body is such an integral part of the deal. But what defines “a GOOD living“?
It’s pretty hard to find a person who is more rah-rah about his favorite teams – the Mariners and Seahawks and Volunteers and Tarheels and Blackhawks and KRAKEN(!) and Rainiers of the sport-o-verse – than I am, but even I have hit my limit at that fat $35M. Maybe even before that. Does Russell Wilson really need that much money to realize his dreams, to do whatever the hell he wants to do for the rest of his natural life and the duration of his grandkids’ lives?
Much as I adored Earl Thomas, when he was MY free safety (not so much, now) I cooled off considerably on him, long before he went to Baltimore, when he said, in a radio interview about his contract dispute with the Seahawks: “I’m just asking for what I deserve for the effort I put forth. I have to provide for my family.”
Just a warning: I am a creaky 67 years old and not in especially good shape but I am quite capable of snapping on a person and doing some momentary Damage. And the next pro sports millionaire who stands in front of me and says, “I have to provide for my family” is quite likely to find that out.
I looked it up on google, adding up the value of all of Earl’s Seahawks contracts – not figuring in his $55M deal with the Ravens – he made just under FIFTY MILLION dollars in his time in Seapatch. I am NOT buying the idea that anyone who has brought in 50M has some sort of problem providing for his family. Saying that is simple, nakedly-manipulative button-pushing. You adopt an ultra-sincere tone of voice, tinged with familial reverence and awe, and invoke the hallowed, sacred, cannot-fail tactic of Protecting My Children. Works EVERY time. Except when anyone bothers to think about “fifty million dollars” and what can be done with that much cash by ANYONE with a lick of sense.
Earl, old buddy, unless you’ve imprinted on Donald Trump like a baby duck – or maybe on the Sultan of Brunei – and have started installing solid gold toilets and buying a fleet of Embraer Phenom 100s, your children are set for life…as are their children and those childrens’ children and your great-great-great grandkids. Guaranteed. Unless Bernie Madoff and Martin Shkreli were doing your books…Mission Accomplished, baby.
Have fun in B-Mo.
I don’t have the answer and I have tried. Every athlete who signs a mega-deal offers to do a matching funds deal with their favorite charity? Outright gives away a significant portion of their salaries? Arbitrarily devalue the dollar until milk costs $450.00 a gallon? No, no, and, uh, NO. And the idea of a mandatory OR even a voluntary rollback of salaries that would result in more $$$ in the pockets of greed-driven owners is absolutely NOT a solution. Full Stop. Trade relatively decent and approachable players as the beneficiary of that sort of recalibration of values, in favor of people who are, many of them, amoral shitheads on the order of the Trump Reptile Zoo and Cesspool? No thanks.
But unless you’ve been living in Biosphere 2 for the past ten years, you have heard or read the term “Income/wage inequality” and know what it means. And, as history shows us, when the wealth of the upper classes – what we now know as “The 1%” – becomes too disproportional to that of the people working for those Uppers, what eventually happens is BAD: Britain’s Peasants’ Revolt, also called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, of 1381. The Romanian Peasant’s Revolt of 1907. Shay’s Rebellion, in Massachusetts, in 1786. Yeah, we are a long way from that sort of extreme situation but when has foresight ever been a foolish indulgence?
I’m writing this about four months after the Salk Episode and Salk has now seen his shadow and gone back into hibernation, now doing a once weekly podcast in place of the daily Brock & Salk, a rather transparent and shop-worn radio trick intended to pacify irate listeners when a major change in air personalities is made. Salk is now station manager of ESPN Seattle and Brock, the valuable part of their show, is now calling college football with Fox Sports. After 26 years of daily listenership, I no longer listen to either Seattle sports station, as the people doing mornings are among the worst I’ve ever heard. It is so far in the rearview mirror, now, that I had trouble working up the interest to finish this post. But I wanted to because…
…Income or Wage inequality is a real Thing. It has teeth and tentacles and is slowly devouring American economics and heading us all into a really uncomfortable and potentially dangerous impasse.
I’m just fine with Russell’s mega-deal. IF any athlete is worth $35,000,000,00, Russell is a great person to be That Guy and his play, here in 2019, certainly says he might be worth that, everything being relative.
But make no mistake about this: if this is the first time you’ve had your nose rubbed in the concept of income inequality, you’re very late to the Big Dance and you WILL read and hear more about it and be compelled to take a stand, for or against, within your life time.
And if you don’t your children will.