Sonn: Paying Tracy McGrady

BY BARRETT SONN | JUNE 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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As Game 7 of the NBA Finals ended, and as members of both the Spurs and the Heat did the traditional dance of sportsmanship on the court, the camera briefly showed Spurs player Tracy McGrady exchanging daps with a member of the Heat. Seeing T-Mac on the floor long after he had outlived his usefulness to an NBA team got me thinking about a persistent question in sports: Are athletes overpaid?

I think most people would say NBA players are not just overpaid but vastly overpaid. In such conversations, NBA athletes’ salaries are often compared to the salaries of teachers and doctors, but making such a rudimentary comparison doesn’t do justice to the intricacies of the issue.

The money numbers can be deceiving. According to the NBA, the average player salary is $5 million per year. That’s a tremendous amount of money. However, looking at the average would be incorrect because the average is skewed significantly by the really big contracts, such as those of Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose.

The median NBA salary is approximately $2 million per year. That’s still a lot of money, but it’s definitely less jarring. Now, consider that the average NBA career is 4.5 years long.

The rest of the pay discrepancy between NBA players and everyday people can be explained by simple economics.

In any given year, there can be a maximum of 450 players for 30 NBA teams. Positions are scarce. In 2010, by contrast, there were 1 million doctors and 720,000 lawyers in the United States. In 2009, there were 7.2 million teachers. Statistically, it is far more difficult for a basketball player to get an NBA roster spot than for a teacher to get a job.

Consider that only 1.2 percent of college players go into the NBA, and only 0.03 percent of high-school players do the same. Any given year, the numbers go from 545,844 high-school players to 17,500 college players to 48 U.S. college players getting drafted. Those are incredible odds to overcome.

Is it really a surprise, then, that 450 supremely talented individuals get paid more per year than millions of teachers? I don’t think so.

Some cite the financial troubles of such guys as Antoine Walker and Latrell Sprewell as evidence that NBA players should not be trusted with large sums of money.

But to play in the NBA you have to be at least 19 years old, one year removed from high school, and that’s it. No college degree necessary. If a college player knows he has a good chance of getting drafted, he will probably enter the draft before finishing college. In fact, it’s called the “one and done,” in which a player stays in college for a year to meet the NBA eligibility requirements, then enters the draft. Only 21 percent of NBA players had an undergraduate degree, as of 2009.

Look at the hypothetical career arc of an average NBA player: He enters the league at age 22, plays until 27, and exits the league with a few million bucks and no degree to fall back on. Is it a wonder then, that 60 percent of NBA players go broke five years after retirement? We can try to blame the players for not being financially smart, but more often than not, they don’t know any better.

There’s certainly a case to be made that guys such as Tracy McGrady (who was paid about $16,000 to do nothing for two months) are paid too much. But NBA players on the whole? Nah.

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