One of the highest paying jobs is that of a professional athlete. With so few positions available and with demand for their services – whether from team owners or the millions of fans who ultimately pay their salaries – extremely high, the law of supply and demand allows top stars to earn more than $20 million a year. One need not be Babe Ruth to make good money: each of the four major North American team sports have minimum salaries higher than that of the president of the United States.
Many have long lamented the fact that people playing games earn so much more than those who perform vital services in health care, education, social services and the like. Whatever merit such arguments may have, they’re of little relevance in a free market capitalist economy.
While the average baseball player currently earns $4.4 million, in 1970, the figure was $29,300. Years ago, players truly played for the love of the game, as the pay was so low that many had second jobs during the off-season to make ends meet. A large number of them are living out their lives in near poverty and face numerous health issues. To add insult to injury – and it’s only in recent years that the toll contact sports takes on bodies and brains has come to light – many lack the resources to get proper health care.
I note this not to demonstrate that today’s glory is short-lived and is often followed by tomorrow’s nightmare, or to raise awareness of the dangers many sports present, but to applaud the National Basketball Association Players Association (NBPA). On Aug. 1, its members unanimously voted to fund health insurance for all retired NBA players with at least three years of service in the league.
“The game has never before been more popular, and all the players in our league today recognize that we’re only in this position because of the hard work and dedication of the men who came before us,” said Chris Paul NBPA president and nine-time all-star. “It’s important that we take care of our entire extended NBA family, and I’m proud of my fellow players for taking this unprecedented step to ensure the health and well-being of our predecessors.”
This represents basic gratitude to those who have gone before and paved the way for current players’ success. Yet such gratitude – and this isn’t limited to the world of professional sports – is rarely displayed. Sadly, no other pro sports league has done anything similar. How easily we forget others.
It’s not only those who earned little who deserve help. In many ways, the pain felt by those who were once of great means, but have lost it all, is greater than that felt by those who never had such riches. For this reason, Jewish law teaches that the wealthy who have fallen should be restored to their previous riches. Wealth has a subjective side, too.
In both theory and practice, the needs of the truly needy take precedence, but the concept is revealing. Irresponsibly, many have squandered the obscene salaries they once earned, often through terrible lifestyle choices. But this matters little in regard to others. All who are in need are entitled to help, regardless of how or why they may need that help.
I write these words during the “nine days” leading up to Tisha b’Av. Our sages teach that what led to the destruction and exile was sinat chinam (baseless hatred). If ahavah, love, means caring and concern for others, then sinah, its opposite, means not only hatred, but more importantly, indifference to the needs of others. Chinam means free, and in rabbinic literature refers to monetary obligations. Thus sinat chinam is manifest when we are indifferent to the monetary needs of others. How much more so to the needs of our predecessors.