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Earlier this week the New York Yankees signed pitcher Gerrit Cole to a nine-year contract worth a staggering $325 million. Cole is the latest star athlete to hit a mega payday. Los Angeles Angels slugger Mike Trout inked a $430 million deal in March.
The massive contracts aren’t limited to just baseball. NBA stars like Stephen Curry and LeBron James have deals that will pay them more than $40 million a season. Several recent NFL quarterbacks have earned more than $200 million in salary over the course of their careers. These figures don’t include the incredibly lucrative sponsorship deals that star athletes often sign — which can dwarf the paycheck they get from their teams. James’s contract with Nike is believed to be worth up to $1 billion.
These enormous contracts would have been unimaginable for athletes from previous generations. For example, Hall of Fame point guard Magic Johnson made $39 million in salary over his entire career, less than Curry will make this season alone. Earlier in the 20th century, pro athletes often had to work a side job in the offseason just to make ends meet.
Why there’s debate
The giant contracts signed by Cole and others have revived a longstanding debate over whether star athletes are simply paid too much money. Critics take issue with individuals who play a game for a living earning extraordinary sums when people in professions like teaching, law enforcement and medicine earn so much less. There is also concern about the incentive structure these contracts create for young people, who might abandon other career paths for a small chance at hitting it big.
A common defense of star athletes’ salaries is an economic one: Players are paid what the market has decided their value to be. Some make the case that because superstars create so much financial value for the teams and leagues, they’re actually underpaid. A few years ago the NBA signed a deal with ESPN and TNT worth $24 billion. As players who have helped make the leagues' broadcast rights so valuable, stars like James and Curry deserve a share of that windfall, some argue.
Lots of kids get left behind chasing big bucks in sports
“The potential monetary payoff for achieving athletic stardom is enormous, creating a huge incentive for youth to devote their teen and college years to sports in the hope of becoming a professional athlete. The downside of this is that most of those chasing that dream fail to attain it. Consequently, many 22- or 23-year-old athletes find themselves needing a job but not having developed any marketable skills.” — Mark Hendrickson, Epoch Times
Athletes are overpaid relative to their impact on society
“Doctors work diligently every day to help improve and save lives don’t make as much as you might think. ...Teachers spend their time educating the future of our country while receiving nowhere near a million dollars yearly.” — Bre Offenburger, Parkersburg News and Sentinel
Top stars are hurting their teammates by hoarding so much money
“The top free agents are getting huge contracts, but many of the rest of the players in the league are not making as much as they used to.” — Steven Kutz, Marketwatch
The business of sports isn’t as large as it may seem
“The total revenue generated by all American sports (including college) totaled about $60 billion — good enough for about 60th place if it had been just one company among the Fortune 500 corporations. Because of the extensive media coverage, the business of sports feels a lot bigger than it actually is.” — Leland Faust, Sports Illustrated
Player salaries are decided by simple supply and demand
“The simplest defense for the platinum salaries, and the one hardest to refute, is the capitalistic one – that players, like almost everyone else, make what the market will bear.” — Phil Taylor, Christian Science Monitor
Athletes are taking their fair cut of the revenues that the leagues make
“The rapid acceleration of salaries has coincided with an almost Monopoly money-like growth in television money.” — Michael, Rand, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Team owners are actually the ones making unfair amounts of money
“Sports players are incredibly rich. … But they’re not the owners, the suits in the suites whose wallets never empty, who never pass along their ‘thriftiness’ with lower ticket prices or cheaper beers, who exploit tax breaks and siphon off public funds to build private mansions. Those people deserve your scorn. But you shouldn’t care about what players make.” — Rick Paulus, Vice
Most sports leagues actually suppress player salaries to protect owners’ investments
“We accept that leagues need to protect their owners from their worst spending impulses when it comes to answering the question why some 20-year-old superstar-in-the-making shouldn’t be paid whatever someone will pay him.” — Jay Caspian Kang, New York Times
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (3), Getty Images