On professional sports: what many fans forget, ignore, or don’t know

This goes back to a spur-of-the-moment tweet I made yesterday. I still stand behind what I wrote even though some people almost certainly got the wrong idea:

And for the record… I really, truly, could not care less who wins the Super Bowl. I just hope none of the players get hurt.

A lot of people forget things about professional sports. When an athlete wants a salary that most average people deem inflated if not outright obscene, it’s easy to forget a lot of the cold, hard, unpleasant realities of professional sports.

The first of those is that for the players at the professional level, playing the game is their day job. Not only is it their day job, particularly in the cases of football, hockey, and motorsports, it is one of the most dangerous jobs in existence. And I’ll probably get flamed for this, but I assert that professional athletics is at least somewhat on par with law enforcement for danger level; it’s difficult to be completely objective on things like this, but my educated guess says that most football players have less than half the working hours per year of most beat cops. In particular, the sheer quantity of police officers with 10+ year careers compared to the relative rarity of NFL players with the same tenure pretty much speaks for itself. I would go as far as to suggest most cops who change careers inside of a decade do so willingly as opposed to being forced to do so from injuries. The NFLPA FAQ for those considering becoming an NFL player is rather clear:

The average length of an NFL career is about 3 and a half seasons. Although there are some exceptional players who have long careers that extend 10 or twelve seasons and beyond, most players only stay active for about three seasons. Players leave the game because of injury, self-induced retirement, or being cut by the team. This also means that while players may make more money than most people, they are only making it for an average of three and a half years. To make sure they are successful in the future, players must invest their money well and make plans for another career when they can no longer play football.

I invite comments from anyone with insight from the law enforcement community, or for that matter any other similarly dangerous career.

The second of these is that when rule changes are made to promote safety, that means for the players, this is a workplace safety issue. Without the players, there’s nothing for the fans to watch. I’m not saying the fans should be completely ignored, but there is no game without the players. The so-called “armchair quarterbacks” are quick to call the players all kinds of derogatory names like “sissies afraid to get hurt” when a league makes a safety-related rule change. Most professional sports fall outside the jurisdiction of OSHA; the players’ union and the league are all the players really have as far as who is looking out for their interests. (And in some cases, the leagues eagerly turn a blind eye until the union makes enough noise.)

Another is the perception that most athletes are millionaires. The NFLPA FAQ linked above refutes this:

Despite what most people think, not all NFL players are millionaires! For example in 2000, the minimum salary for rookies was $193,000. While the highest paid players in the league can make $7-8 million per year, most players make much less than that. … This year, the average NFL salary was $1.1 million.

Note that this is the average, meaning there are a significant number of players who make less than this.

I would go as far as to say an NFL player making the minimum salary, who suddenly finds himself playing for an entire quarter of every game from, say, the fourth week on, is probably not being adequately compensated for the risk he is undertaking! (To be fair about it the same could certainly be said of many police and fire personnel as well.)

(Quick aside: the average is different from the median; the former is the sum divided by the count, while the latter is the number of which half the numbers in the set are either above or below. I suspect the small number of multi-million-dollar salaries inflate this average to be much higer than the median, but would need to find the numbers to actually back it up. I believe the median to be a much more useful statistic which would probably go much further towards proving my point in this case.)

Finally, the career of most professional athletes, save for certain sports such as bowling or golf, is short enough as it is, without the ever-present possibility of career-threatening or career-ending injuries. As mentioned previously, especially in the case of professional team sports, there is the possibility of being cut (or, as the rest of us know it, getting fired) by the team. The reasons for an athlete being out of work are sometimes just as arbitrary as some of the layoffs and firings that happen in the corporate world.

So when I say things like that, there’s a reason for it. I do feel the New Orleans Saints played a great game and congratulate the team and its fans on the victory; while I did not really root for the Saints, I am capable of admiring well-played football by any team.

Today’s a great day for sports fans, all sports fans, to pause and give the proper credit to the players that make each sport what it is. Without the players, there would be no game to watch.

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