When did athletes get so rich?

Stephen Curry's yearly salary is a cool $34 million. Where did all this money come from?

nolan ryan warming up money
(Image: Chuck Andersen/Wikimedia Commons/Big Think)
  • Athletes didn't start to make serious money in the U.S. until Curt Flood sued baseball.
  • The emergence of television advertising also began to play a role.
  • The purchasing power of the average American hasn't moved since the 1970s.

There have always been rich athletes, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that today — in this century — there are more rich athletes now than there used to be. If we're to define 'now' as occupying the 20th century and 'rich' as getting paid more than one million dollars per year, then we can say that some of the first 'rich' athletes of our modern times included Dave Parker (MLB), Nolan Ryan (MLB), Moses Malone (NBA), Bobby Orr (NHL), Derek Sanderson (NHL), and Lam Jones (NFL.)

There were certainly rich players before the modern age. Not only was the Roman athlete Diocles purportedly worth $15 billion at the end of his life, but Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, who nearly made the equivalent of one million per year during the height of his powers, was so comfortable with his wealth that he was rumored to have thrown a piano into a lake to test his strength. But there's a reason why athlete wealth has hit new heights.

The powder keg

So what prompted the change? What took us from an era of soccer players being former coal miners to soccer players being rich? What sparked the sudden contemporary surge? The short answer: The re-establishment of sport as a modern spectacle, free agency, and television.

Free agency is when an athlete, in effect, offers themselves up to highest or best bidder. And, until relatively recently, that wasn't the case. From 1879 to 1975, the 'reserve clause' was the rule by which American sports teams operated. A 'reserve clause' effectively meant that a player could not negotiate a contract with another team. A player could be traded, sold, or released at a team's whim.

One reason why this problem persisted for so long — why a team could buy or sell a player without so much as a question put to the player — was the fact that Major League Baseball had an exemption from federal Antitrust laws. Why? A decent argument could simply be central position baseball occupied in American culture. Judges knew what baseball meant, so they kept finding ways to 'protect' it.

The reserve clause finally began to change when Curt Flood refused a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. He objected to how poorly the Phillies had been doing, the quality of the stadium, and his concern over encountering racist fans.

Flood eventually sued Major League Baseball. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, which ultimately sided with Major League Baseball. Flood was blackballed from the game. It wouldn't be until 1998 that Congress would officially pass the Curt Flood Act to recognize the fact that players officially have a right to their free agency (though nothing was mentioned in the Flood Act about team relocation, broadcasting agreements, and more.) Sports had, by then, gained a series of rights through incremental steps taken by collective bargaining.


Additionally, television ads brought (and continues to bring) money to the game. Consider that the Dodgers made nearly $200 million from TV advertising and broadcasting in 2016. NFL TV ad revenue hit $3.5 billion in 2017. March Madness made $1.2 billion from advertising in 2018. TV ad revenue nearly accounts for 40% of hockey player salaries.

But beyond free agency and television, it's also worth noting that the presence of certain players alone caused the price of athlete salaries to jump. In 1995, Patrick Ewing was making a little over 18 million dollars with the New York Knicks and was the highest paid player in the league; the next year saw Michael Jordan make over 30 million with the Chicago Bulls.

A period of growth

How much have athlete salaries have grown since the 1970s or 80s? How do these wages compare to the average American?

The wages of athletes in the NBA have increased 344% between 1980 and 2016, 304% in Major League Baseball, and 266% in the NFL. (As of this writing, we have yet to come across relevant NHL-related data.)

During that period — nearly three decades — the average American worker has not seen their purchasing power move. In 1981, indexed for inflation, the average American made a salary of $13,773. As of 2017, the average American salary is $50,322 per year. That's an on-year percentage increase, but there are reasons why that isn't good enough: the price of schools has gone up. The price of housing has gone up. To summarize in extremis the well-researched thesis of The Two-Income Trap, parents have been increasingly financially punished for being parents for the past 40 years, forever pushed into paying more and more for the necessities of life.

As of 2016, the highest average player salary breaks down as follows: The average NBA player makes $6.25 million per year; the average baseball player makes a little less than $4.6 million per year; the average hockey player makes a little less than $3.1 million per year; and the average American football player makes $2.1 million per year.

Do athletes deserve that much money?

Yes. Even as they've made more money over the past thirty-some years — even if we're to skip past the fact that athletes making more money overall is a comparatively recent historical trend; even if we're to point out something a little bit more situational, like the fact that Liverpool F.C. used to be comprised of literal coal miners — the legal structure in place in which these sport teams operate are still abnormally tilted in the direction of the owners.

And it isn't just that athletes deserve the money; it isn't just that college kids deserve the money or, at least, more options for them to choose from. It isn't just that payment toward athletes and student athletes needs to be much more reflective of a commitment to racial equity. It's that athletes deserve a stable exit path for when they leave the sport that they play, too.

Per a 2009 Sports Illustrated article, 78% of NFL players go broke within the first two years after they leave the NFL. Of NBA players, 60% go broke within the first five years after they leave the game. J.R. Richard — a star pitcher with the Houston Astros — was homeless for two years (even sleeping beneath a bridge) before getting a job with an asphalt company.

The story of rich athletes in our modern times is both a simple story and a complicated story. The examples are bright and present enough in all our lives for all of us to see, but — if we poke at the contours of the system just a bit; start to ask why things are the way they are just a bit — we'll begin to get a sense of a long-standing historic financial structure that privileges the wealthy and the few.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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