When teachers score, no one pays to watch

THIS PAST Thursday professional basketball star Shaquille "Can't Hit a Free Throw" O'Neal signed a seven-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers worth a total of $120 million. Others have also done handsomely.

Juwan Howard, formerly of the hapless and luckless Washington Bullets, jumped to the Miami Heat, whose owner will fork over $98 million over seven years. The Heat also resigned Alonzo Mourning to a seven-year deal worth $105 million. According to Sun sports writer Jerry Bembry, the Miami franchise is only worth $97 million.


Allan Houston and Chris Childs -- two guys not likely to make you forget the names Jerry West and Oscar Robertson -- got $56 million and $24 million, respectively, from the New York Knicks.

The Seattle Supersonics bestowed a seven-year, $85 million contract on Gary Payton.


The Indiana Pacers will hand out $80.5 million and $38.5 million over the next seven years to Dale Davis and Antonio Davis, respectively.

Dikembe Mutombo will get $50 million from the Atlanta Hawks over the next five years.

Hakeem Olajuwon, who at least has two NBA championships and an MVP award, will get $55 million from the Houston Rockets over the next five years.

This orgy of generosity on the part of National Basketball Association owners is not exactly guided by the merit system. Olajuwon, clearly a better player than either Howard or Mourning, will make less per year than each of them. With such dough to throw around, you'd think the NBA would sock some into the pension fund to reward all those old-timers who made the game great. I'm talking about guys like West and Robertson, as well as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, Bob Cousy and Earl Monroe.

If the amount of money being doled out seems obscene, that's because it is. "Money doesn't talk, it swears," that great songwriter, poet and philosopher Bob Dylan assures us. But let's not begrudge these guys their wealth, their obvious inferiority to players of the past notwithstanding. The money is generated by ticket sales and advertising revenue. It's folks paying to see these guys in arenas and watch them on television -- where advertisers can cajole fans to buy products -- that make such salaries possible.

I've heard people say it's a shame professional athletes make so much money while teachers make so little. It is a shame, but the analogy is weak. When was the last time you stopped by your neighborhood school and plopped down 50 bucks to watch an algebra teacher help a class master the finer points of a quadratic equation? It's just not done.

Professional sports is entertainment, which people pay top dollars to see. Teacher salaries are based on taxes. How much more taxes are you willing to spend to see the average teacher salary increased to even $100,000 a year? A show of hands, please. Anyone? Anyone? I thought not.

But there is a disturbing connection about the NBA's willingness to dole out salaries in the megamillions and education: the trend over the past several years of basketball players leaving school early to jump to the professional ranks. In the past NBA draft, more than 20 players were underclassmen. A few were fresh out of high school -- mere babes in the woods, their breath still reeking of Similac.


There was a time when the NBA only drafted underclassmen who claimed financial hardship. That was when there was still the illusion that college athletes were actually getting the benefits of higher education. That was before college football and basketball themselves became big business. That was before the big-bucks deluge engulfed professional sports.

The most galling part of the NBA money binge is that everyone knows these athletes haven't a clue about what to do with all that loot.

"What's the difference between $80 million and $90 million?" Bembry reported Payton as asking. "You can't spend it all anyway." It seems that the Miami Heat offered Payton more than the $85 million Seattle eventually agreed to pay him. Thank God at least one player had enough conscience to put a limit on his greed.

That Payton guy is actually on to something. There may yet be a way to satisfy those who feel teachers should be paid more money and those who feel there's something a tad amiss with NBA players being rewarded so handsomely. Put a special education tax on those NBA players being rewarded so handsomely. Put a special education tax on those NBA players making those millions -- to be designated specifically for teachers' salaries.

Pub Date: 7/20/96