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Pro Athletes, Pay Cuts, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

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As the economy limps along under the ominous skies of the pandemic, people left and right have lost jobs and are obliged to be more frugal than ever. Even those with the most protected careers are left wondering what their position might look like when this begins to simmer further.

Some of the most insulated folks within the economic hierarchy are professional athletes. The stars especially are among the wealthiest people on the planet, making in a week what a lot of us only make over the course of many years, if not a lifetime. Many of them, though, are going the noble route, slashing their own salaries for the greater good.

It’s easy to forget that the sporting world is about so much more than just the athletes. There’s so much happening beyond the court, field, or track, from trainers, nutritionists and physicians to security personnel, stadium vendors, marketing teams, film crews, and more. It’s a layered machine that’s dependent on functioning seasons to stay funded and healthy.

Many superstar players are cutting their wages to keep non-playing personnel on the payroll. Lionel Messi, one of the planet’s richest humans and arguably the best to have ever played the game of soccer, recently cut his salary by 70%. It’s a substantial move that will keep countless members of the Barcelona Football Club happy and able to provide for their families. Messi, of course, will be fine as Forbes estimates he made something to the tune of $127 million last year alone (including endorsements). Still, the move is a somewhat selfless one that others are following. In fact, his entire team’s roster has agreed to as much.

Leo Messi statement "the time has come to announce that, as well as the 70% reduction in our salaries during the state of alarm, we are going to make contributions too so that club employees can receive 100% of their salaries while this situation lasts"

— The Spanish Football Podcast (@tsf_podcast) March 30, 2020

Other major soccer clubs throughout the world, like Juventus in Italy, have taken similar across-the-board actions. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo have made large donations to hospitals, inspiring others to do the same. But in sports stardom also involves a lot of ego, which can very much get in the way. In the Premiere League right now players are saying no to a proposed 30% slash. It seems selfish, and may be to some extent, but it’s also a response to players knowing that many of the clubs themselves probably have deep enough pockets to ride it out. That, and there are reports that players are upset with the U.K. government’s handling of the pandemic and don’t want to bend to its public demands for players to “play their part.” They feel unfairly targeted, especially as giant corporations take in handy bailout cash. 

NBA players have agreed to a 25% pay cut effective May 15. It’s a large lump of loot considering that in 2019, the minimum salary for the league started at $582,000. Most players, of course, make more than that. The richest, like Lebron James, are equipping their foundations to feed those in need. Others are using their colossal platforms to spread useful information. Star point guard Steph Curry, for example, has been pushing proper quarantine protocol and even had a conversation with Dr. Fauci.

Stephen Curry and Dr. Anthony Fauci | COVID-19 Q&A

At the ballpark, things are a little more complex. The MLB is still paying its players at various rates depending on individual contracts. Some cuts have been made and some visible names, like Florida Marlins CEO Derek Jeter, have agreed to forgo their salaries for the time being. The league is floating the idea of starting the season in late May, even if before a backdrop of crowd-less stadiums.

The NFL is pushing to preserve the status quo amid the pandemic. One of the main reasons the league may just get away with that is that it’s the off-season right now, meaning franchises aren’t missing out on lucrative games. We’ll have to wait and see what things look like in late summer as teams get ready for the season. For now, the players’ association has fought to protect present pay rates. With the draft having just wrapped up (virtually) as the most-followed of its kind to date, and with big trades like Tom Brady to Tampa unfolding, you’d never really know a pandemic was happening in NFL land. 

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On empty campuses across the country, the current situation is a sobering reminder of just how much of a business the NCAA is. Key members of college athletic programs like coaches and athletic directors are taking cuts, but more in the 5-15% range. It’s helpful, but the trend has still been to furlough much of these departments.

As USA Today reported, even at a school like Iowa State, which doesn’t have the athletic prowess of, say, an Alabama or Ohio State, coaches are making a lot of money. The school’s football coach, Matt Campbell, agreed to a 10% pay cut that sees his salary go from $3.5 million to $3.15 million per year. Given those numbers, it’s understandable why so many would like to see NCAA coaches take even more dramatic cuts in order to help fellow staff and the schools.

It would be uplifting to see some of these pay cuts continue well into the future, in some form or another, especially at the college level. The dichotomy of having millionaire coaches and modestly paid professors at the same public institution is its own lengthy essay (with the added fold of continuing talk about potentially paying NCAA athletes). But in a broader sense, the economy will not recover swiftly and the ripple effect of the pandemic will last a long time. Agreeing to modest pay cuts going forward will keep school staff employed and prevent offloading a lack of money elsewhere, like the state unemployment office. Clearly, there’s room for more wealth sharing at major universities.

Sports are sorely missed but it’s nice to know that players aren’t simply owning a stereotypical jock mentality and checking out of the pandemic, mentally, with money in hand. It’s an interesting combination of varying pay cuts, active protest, and a lot of silent donations, much of which goes unreported.

The pandemic is restructuring everything it comes in contact with and it may just change the way checks are written for our favorite athletes.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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