There you go, Steelers, here we don't

Tale of 2 paydays: Black and gold vs. black and blue

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This week's sermon is inspired by the exhortation of patriot Patrick Henry: "If this be treason, make the most of it."

On the day when the Pittsburgh Steelers begin their quest for their seventh Super Bowl title, here are a few statistics that won't be cited during the erudite conversation common at the adequately lubricated tailgate buffet.

In a time of the greatest economic distress since the Great Depression, when the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, when 14 million are unemployed -- 6 million of them for more than 29 weeks -- we have somehow scrimped and saved enough to come up with the estimated $3.8 billion or so needed to meet NFL payrolls this season (32 squads with a salary cap payroll of $120 million).

At least we have our priorities straight.

Consider the $264 million worth of contracts awarded to quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger ($102 million, eight-year deal), the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning ($90 million for five years) and the New England Patriots' Tom Brady ($72 million for four years).

The value of their contracts is about $100 million shy of the $370 million needed to repair Pennsylvania's structurally deficient bridges, according to Gov. Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.

Or consider the $163.2 million awarded in six-year deals signed by Steelers linebackers James Harrison ($51.7 million), LaMarr Woodley ($61.5 million) and Lawrence Timmons ($50 million).

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers' most recent assessment of America's infrastructure, the trio's pay approaches what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends each year to rehabilitate just three of the locks ($50 million per lock) on the nation's inland waterways. The society says 47 percent of the 257 locks on the 12,000-mile system were functionally obsolete as of 2006. The locks include those along the three rivers that meet by Heinz Field, the home of the Steelers.

Or consider Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor's $28 million, four-year deal. That is $3.5 million shy of what the Port Authority pays each year in retiree health care benefits.

Or the average salaries of NFL players according to player agent Jack Bechta. In an article posted last month at nationalfootballpost.com, Mr. Bechta estimated the league's top 10 quarterbacks were paid an average of $15 million a year. His estimates of average annual pay at other positions include: $10.5 million for defensive ends, $10 million for receivers and cornerbacks and a mere $2.7 million for punters.

Meanwhile, the average Pennsylvania public school teacher is paid $57,237 annually, according to the Pennsylvania State Education Association. So, 262 average teachers could be hired for one school year with what it takes to pay a top 10 NFL quarterback for one season. Or 175 average teachers for every average cornerback or receiver. Or 47 average teachers for every average punter.

Consider also how long the average NFL player is paid to work. While engineers, teachers, construction workers, bus drivers and other working stiffs last 30 years or more -- if they do not fall victim to restructurings, off-shorings, government budget cuts and other risks of their occupations -- the average NFL career lasts a mere 3.3 years, according to the NFL Players Association.

That means players have even shorter careers than their highly compensated brethren, corporate executives. The Conference Board reports the average tenure of S&P 500 CEOs who left their positions last year was eight years. S&P 500 CEOs were paid an average of $11.4 million last year, according to the AFL-CIO.

Princely NFL paychecks are subsidized by television networks that pay princely sums to broadcast games. Last week, ESPN agreed to pay $1.9 billion annually for the right to host Monday Night Football. Combined, networks pay more than $3 billion annually for TV rights, Webster University economics professor Patrick Rishe said in a piece for Forbes.com last week. That amounts to about $95 million per team, or about 80 percent of the $120 million salary cap, Mr. Rishe wrote.

The TV contracts reflect the economic worth networks place on broadcast rights. The same can be said for ticket and stadium beer prices, advertising rates and player salaries.

Granted, much of the money in player contracts is incentive pay. But while players may be paid less, their contracts reflect the economic worth owners and fans place on players achieving goals that are important to owners and fans. Pay also reflects the value placed on the risks of achieving those goals, including suffering permanent damage from concussions and other serious injuries that are a part of the occupation.

In that way, NFL players are no different than their counterparts in the real world, who are paid based on how society values the fruits of their labor. Our priorities are such that America cannot afford safe bridges, efficient locks, health care for retirees and more teachers to educate those who will inherit what's left of the American dream.

But at least we still can afford the beer, chicken wings and nachos required to watch grown men who are paid $3.8 billion annually to either advance a pigskin across the goal line or use all force necessary to prevent that from happening.

Enjoy the game.


Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.


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