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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

UNHAPPY—Can’t Buy Happiness

Despite Being Shown the Money, Athletes Seem Miserable

Dodger star Gary Sheffield is whining to be traded. Laker Isaiah Rider and Clipper Lamar Odom are both suspended for drug use. Shaq and Kobe are still squabbling over who gets to lead the Lakers. Just another week in L.A. sports.

From outward appearances, it might seem as though local pro athletes are among the most miserable creatures on the planet. And who could blame them? They make piles of money, live in one of the most glamorous spots on the globe and spend their days doing what they love playing sports.

So what gives?

“I think the problems stem from (athletes’) competitiveness and their inflated opinions of themselves,” said Doug McKehe, a sports psychologist with the Indiana University Medical School in Indianapolis. “When you think of yourself as pretty hot stuff, this is what happens. It’s part of human nature.”

And being “hot stuff” in Los Angeles where Hollywood celebrities regularly show up to cheer for the home team with the same abandon as Joe-Sixpack fans can be tremendously heady stuff.

This is not Green Bay, where merely being a great athlete is enough. In L.A., we like our sports heroes to win with panache, or even to lose with panache. Just do it with a flair and flourish Hollywood agents are watching. Let them imagine how that on-field flash will translate to a commercial for Nike, or Gatorade, or American Express. Or maybe a movie.

“It’s a big market that has deep pockets,” said Sab Singh, director of sports business at Growthink Inc. in West Los Angeles. “It’s also the nature of the game that the biggest stars get the most attention.”

But what happens when those big stars don’t get their way? That’s when trouble erupts, and that trouble seems to be erupting with increasingly frequency in Los Angeles, as well as in several other sports markets around the country.

All the bickering is having an alienating affect on fans, sports industry observers say. And while consumers traditionally tend to side with individuals in their fights against powerful corporations (call it the “Erin Brockovich” syndrome), the exact opposite tends to be true in sports.

“This is typical of the business side of sports. Right or wrong, the fan usually takes sides with the owners,” said Dave Smith, an anchor at all-sports station KXTA-AM (1150).

Athletes might be well advised to make note of that tendency.

The real boss

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to remember that spending on sports is a voluntary decision, and that the fan is the ultimate boss,” said Lee Steinberg, a sports agent with Steinberg, Moorad and Dunn in Newport Beach. “Fans are not going to be storming Dodger Stadium with pick axes because a player is only making $10 million or $20 million a year.”

Steinberg, of course, was referring to the latest fiasco involving Dodgers left fielder Gary Sheffield’s demand to be traded after team Chairman Robert Daly insisted that Sheffield’s existing contract for $10 million a year for the next three seasons remain in place. Sheffield also dictated which teams he would agree to be traded to.

That dispute erupted just weeks after Rob Blake, a star player for the L.A. Kings hockey team for the past 12 seasons, turned his nose up at a three-year deal for $24 million. The Kings traded him to the Colorado Avalanche in January.

Steinberg, who represents Shawn Green of the Dodgers and Darren Erstad of the Anaheim Angels, said the public airing of these disputes is destructive and highly distasteful.

“All of these contract figures are enormous,” he said. “These discussions are best held in private and a signed contract must be honored.”

Teams point out that they are, in the end, businesses and that keeping players happy has to be balanced against making the right long-term business decision for their teams.

“The market for athletes is what it is,” said Tim Mead, vice president of communications with the Angels, which is owned by The Walt Disney Co. “You try to make the best deal from a business point-of-view.”

Feeling appreciated

Dr. William Parham, chief psychologist for the department of intercollegiate athletics at UCLA, said, “It’s really not about dollars and cents, because an extra half million dollars here or there is not the issue. For many athletes it’s a feeling of pride, respect and a matter of feeling appreciated by the organization.”

Whether the players’ outbursts are being triggered by pride or greed or something else, the resultant histrionics are providing plentiful fodder for the five all-sports radio stations in the area.

Talk show hosts said the problems of Sheffield and Blake, as well as this season’s ongoing clashes between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant over who should lead the Lakers, have made for great radio.

“It’s the best thing to happen since the O.J. trial,” said KXTA’s Smith.

There are plenty of examples of L.A. players taking a hard, public line when it comes to salary disputes with management.

Former Dodger Hall of Fame pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, for example, held out for five weeks in 1965 for a six-figure salary. Koufax eventually got $125,000 and Drysdale $115,000. Mike Piazza was criticized by fans for asking to become the first $100 million player. He was eventually traded by the Dodgers to the Florida Marlins, where he played for a portion of a season before being traded to the New York Mets, who signed the all-star catcher to a seven-year, $91 million deal.

“This is not a new phenomenon in the sports industry,” said David Carter, president of the Los Angeles-based The Sports Business Group. “(But) combine today’s player salaries with increased media attention, and all of a sudden these incidents are magnified to the point where everyone looks bad.”

Carter added that the negative public light in which players appear is often justified.

Feeling bulletproof

“Today’s players grew up watching Sports Center highlights (on ESPN). They are only out for self gratification and have surrounded themselves with yes-men,” he said.

And being so surrounded, the athletes can be seduced into believing they are omnipotent.

“Besides their salaries, high-priced athletes feel that there is a certain sense of entitlement that they can do whatever they want to do and the consequences are going to be little, if any,” said UCLA’s Parham.

That attitude may have been what led to the National Basketball Association last week suspending Lamar Odom of the Clippers and the Lakers’ Isaiah Rider for five games each for violating the league’s anti-drug policy.

As long as big money is a factor, said those who follow pro sports, these issues will persist.

“It’s never going to end,” said Joe McDonnell, assistant program director and talk show host at KSPN-AM (1110). “There is always going to be a competitive owner who wants to win and is willing to spend the money. The only way something might change is if an owner says they can’t afford to pay $253 million for ‘A-Rod’ (Alex Rodriguez) and that’s never going to happen.”

Fabulous Pay to Play…Ten highest-paid local athletes, based on 2001 salaries

Athlete, Team/Sport, Annual Pay*

Shaquille O’Neal

Lakers $24

Oscar De La Hoya

Boxer $23

Kevin Brown

Dodgers $15

Mo Vaughn

Angels $13.3

Shawn Green

Dodgers $12

Kobe Bryant

Lakers $11.8

Darren Dreifort

Dodgers $11

Gary Sheffield

Dodgers $10.1

Paul Kariya

Mighty Ducks $10

Horace Grant

Lakers $6.5

Note: Teemu Selanne of the Mighty Ducks would have ranked 10th on the list at $8 million, but he was traded last week to the San Jose Sharks.

* In millions

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