Since the NBA's free agency period began on July 1, everywhere you turn, someone is yelling about how much money NBA players are making. Athletes are always being excoriated for how much they are paid, but I've never seen anything like this. People are mad. You would think that Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova and Rajon Rondo were convicted criminals who stole thousands of innocent people's retirement plans. Because rising revenues caused the salary cap to jump so much this year -- something commissioner Adam Silver had tried to prevent but was thwarted by players union chief Michele Roberts -- there's a ton of money to spend, and owners are spending it.
You would think this would make people happy. Money is transferring from obscenely wealthy people who get people to pay to watch talented people do amazing things to those less obscenely wealthy talented people doing amazing things. Everybody seems to hate sports owners all days of the year except for the day they sign a player to a contract. Then, suddenly, we're all concerned the owners are getting screwed over. It's a fundamental fallacy. If a player is "overpaid" -- and four years, $64 million sure seems like a lot for Mozgov! -- that means there is a surplus of money that isn't being given to them. There is no cap on how much money an owner can bring in; there's just a cap for how much they can spend. But it's not fun to talk about revenue-enhancing deals on talk radio and Twitter, most of which don't get a press release anyway. It's much more fun to call Joakim Noah washed up.
I used to think this was just about money, but it's not about money. It's about power.
On July 4, right before noon ET, Kevin Durant, one of the most talented athletes on the planet and a guy we're all going to be screaming for in Rio next month, announced that he was going to leave Oklahoma City, where he had played his whole career (except for that year in Seattle, ahem), to join the Golden State Warriors. Durant has never gone on the open market before -- he actually received a ton of plaudits for quietly signing a contract extension with Oklahoma City right after LeBron James' infamous Decision -- and by doing so the year the salary cap jumped so much, he was able to maximize every aspect of the decision for himself. He was able to choose:
- How much he would make (the cap rising meant it cost him some money to leave Oklahoma City, but not as much as it would have in the past).
- How long his contract lasts (it's reportedly a two-year deal, and he has a player option for the second year, which means it could be one year)
- Which team he goes to (the team that won a title a year ago and just finished the best regular season in NBA history)
- How he makes this biggest announcement of his career (on The Players' Tribune, a site where he, and his handlers, can craft every word of his message).
In other words: Durant waited until he had a maximum amount of power, and then he wielded it. He did what every single human would do -- does do -- in their profession. He did what Wall Streeters do, what day laborers do, what writers do, what politicians do, what nurses do, what freelancers do, what every single one of us does, or at least tries to do. He recognized his value on the open market and made certain that he was able not only to have the utmost control over his situation, but also make the decision that was specific to him, the one that did well for him financially, personally, emotionally. It is, on this Independence Day, the American dream. A human, through hard work, talent and dedication, using the spoils of his labor to declare his freedom to do what he wishes and be compensated handsomely for it. Outside the world of sports, we would all cheer this. We do all cheer this.
This has not been what has happened to Durant. He has been accused of being:
- A front-runner.
- Disdainful of Oklahoma City. (Despite his Players' Tribune piece being solely about being sad to leave.)
- "Weak." (Whatever that means.)
Durant just turned heel- Kenny Ducey (@KennyDucey) July 4, 2016
I never thought he'd actually do it. This is the softest, most cowardly move I've ever seen. I hate Kevin Durant now.- Charlie (@CharlieWisco) July 4, 2016
If you think it's about building a winner, competing and sticking with who brought you, then you have every right to boo Durant lustily.- Rich Eisen (@richeisen) July 4, 2016
Durant has immediately become Target No. 1 in the next NBA season because he "broke out of his comfort zone" and decided that winning a championship was the most important thing to him. He worked his way into a position of strength and used that strength to do exactly what he wanted to do. It is understandable if Oklahoma City fans boo him when he plays there next year. It is decidedly less so if the rest of us do it.
But then again: This has really been what these last four days of free agency have all been about, haven't they? Basketball players -- people among the 450 best at playing basketball, an activity we as a society give massive entertainment and financial value, on the planet -- getting paid a lot of money, and all of us yelling at them for it? We don't want them to have money, but we really don't want them to have autonomy. We want them to be exactly where we want them to be. Even if we can't agree on where that is.
You want to know the big money figure that was most shocking since July 1? It was one that few have complained about, or even noticed, even though it's the biggest contract of all them, bigger than Mozgov's, bigger than Noah's, even bigger than Durant's. On Friday -- the day before July 4 weekend, the best of all possible news dump days -- word came out that the NFL paid commissioner Roger Goodell $32 million in 2015. This was actually a pay cut from the $34 million he made in 2014. Goodell has had two nightmare seasons as a commissioner, years where he has lost all public faith in his leadership and earned his league, his beloved shield, constant comparisons to tobacco companies, of all things. His reign has been a disaster in every possible way except for the only one that counts: making money for NFL owners.
For this, if he were a player, he would be one of the 10 highest paid athletes in all of sports. Did you hear a lot of outrage about that? Did you hear people saying it was a disgrace, that this money is insane, that commissioner salaries are spiraling out of control? I didn't. I heard people grousing about Jon Leuer and Eric Gordon making more than $10 million. I heard people missing the point entirely. We live in a sports universe when Goodell, a man who is totally incompetent at his job, makes more money than Durant, who might be one of the best 30 people at his job in the history of mankind. And we're all yelling at Durant.
I read a ton of colleagues who are always telling me that viewpoints on money and class and labor and race in sports are improving, that the public gets it now, that they understand better how it all works now. Could have fooled me.