Were big salaries part of an elaborate, generational scheme for owners to eventually take over pro sports once and for all?

We have all heard the saying . . . the only difference between a six (or seven) figure salary and an everyday paycheck is the number of zeros.

As someone who has experienced the extremes of earning the even now unimaginable sum of $40K to $70K per month and, scrapping pennies from the bottom of a jar, I can attest to the fact that it is not as simple as that yet . . . there is a underlying truth in terms of the transcendental principles of the axiom.

In an eye opening interview with three former professional athletes on this past week’s BTW! show (After The Cheering Stops: The Life of a Professional Athlete), the realization that everyday life as a way of permeating what to almost every fan, and as it turns out the majority of athletes themselves, is the seemingly impenetrable bastion of realized dreams, makes one pause to wonder if a career in pro sports has progressed beyond the days depicted in the movie Net Worth.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it is about how one time Detroit Red Wing hockey great Ted Lindsay forged the National Hockey League’s Player Association in the face of strong opposition from the owners.

For me, one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the movie is when the story’s protagonist encounters a former star player who after his hockey career came to an end found himself living in the streets and selling the broken hockey sticks of the current players outside of the old Olympia arena.

It provides at once both a shocking and sobering glimpse into a part of pro sports that rarely makes it to the front of the daily sports page.

It is also a reminder that despite Lindsay’s eventual success in playing a key role in the establishment of the NHLPA, and those who followed suit in other professional sports leagues, how very little things have changed in the past century.

Within the context of the image of the movie’s homeless player, the revelation in Friday’s segment by both the athletes as well as Beverly Hills Clinical Therapist Carla Lundblade (who unexpectedly tuned into the show), that almost 80% of all professional athletes end up broke, unemployed, divorced and often times battling some form of addiction speaks to this disturbing truth.

Busher Jackson - pro sport's first self-destructive bad boy?

A truth I might add that was highlighted in a March 2nd, 2011 MSNBC post by Bill Briggs titled NFL owners won’t run hurry-up offense vs. players, which itself disclosed that 20% of the league’s players are living paycheck-to-paycheck despite a minimum annual salary guarantee of $320,000 for rookies.  In hard numbers this represents 380 of the NFL’s near 1,700 players.

The result as reported by Briggs is that with so many players living on what he called “stretched finances,” time favors the owners relative to their position in any labor dispute.

Harkening back to Ted Lindsay’s era and the key reasons behind the formation of what became today’s NHLPA, wasn’t ownership’s control of the players’ career and ultimately their lives a major factor, of which money (or the lack thereof), motivated the athletes to take action?

Yet here we are decades later, and the issue of control, or to put it another way, the balance of power that favored ownership, hasn’t changed.  Like a parent who let’s a demanding child eat the entire box of cookies before dinner only to see the child get sick and thus learn an important lesson, perhaps the acquiescence to the player demands that led to the formation of the unions was actually the then knowing owners provision of the proverbial box of cookies?

I am not saying that this was a benevolent act on the part of the owners, as it was more likely the unintended consequences of their realization that after raking in millions upon millions of dollars on the backs of their players – who it should be pointed out were considered to be little more than chattel, that the jig as they say was up and that they had to pony up some of their amassed booty.

The real question is whether or not the owners knew, instinctively or otherwise, that the players were likely to self-destruct due to financial over-indulgence, and that both sides would one day end up back at square one.

After all, and in a moment of amazing clarity, Trevor Kennerd’s statement that he is to at least a certain degree glad that he never earned the big paychecks during his playing days that many athletes (particularly in the U.S.) earn today, because it forced him to contemplate life after football, is telling.

What is most interesting of course is that on this side of history in player – management relations, the athletes have no one to blame for their personal woes but themselves.  Nowhere is this culpability better illustrated than it was when the former Toronto Argonaut Bob Bronk recounted the story of how the league, in an attempt to help the players prepare for life after football, arranged for Drake Personnel to visit the locker room to provide pointers on how to successfully join the everyday workforce.  Out of a roster of 50 or more players, only two – Bronk and Geoff Townsend, showed up.  The irony of course is that both men had legitimate university/college degrees and were already well positioned both financially and emotionally, for their post-gridiron days.

But where were the other players?

Perhaps they, like the many athletes who experience the rush that playing professional sports provides, would equate a post career prep session as an acknowledgement that their cherished playing days will one day come to an end . . . a reality that most are not inclined to face.

Ultimately, and as is the case with death and taxes, no one – not even cream of the crop players like a Wayne Gretzky, Brett Favre and Reggie Jackson can escape life’s realities.

Until players realize this immutable truth, all the money and fame in the world will not improve their eventual lot in life.

Remember to use the following link to listen to the on-demand broadcast “After The Cheering Stops: The Life of a Professional Athlete.”

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  • Books Written by Jon Hansen

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