Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pay Commensurate With Play

[click to enlarge]
[click to enlarge]

This Green Bay Packers contract has been circulating on the internet, but it is authentic and dates to when Curly Lambeau still coached the team, a full 15 years before Lombardi arrived from the Giants. 

The nonchalance of management's expectations that McGroaraty will leave his job and relocate to Green Bay to play professional football is striking.  Even more so when you know that in the 1940s the mere idea of professional athletics as gainful employment was incredibly esoteric.  At the time all Olympic competitors were required to be full amateurs.  In fact, after Jesse Owen won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, the Amateur Athletics Union revoked his amateur status - immediately ending his running career - when he pursued commercial offers.  Jesse spent the rest of his life operating a dry-cleaners and pumping gas.

When Nike was founded in 1964 by Bill Bowerman, the running coach at the University of Oregon, the company could not give Oregon collegiate runners shoes for fear that their amateur status, and all access to international and Olympic competition, would be in jeopardy.  [Not to worry: instead Bowerman hand-made each runner his own shoes, built off of the runner's individual last.]  This a full thirty years after the AAU ran one of the US's best track athletes ever out of the sport on a rail.

In comparison, Nike paid Michael Jordan $500,000 in 1984, and LeBron James $93 million over sever years.  Both Jordan and James have won Olympic medals while under contract with Nike, something that the more than thirty (30)(!) Oregon runners Bowerman coached to the Olympics cannot claim.  [In one brief moment of bi-partisanship and sanity, Congress stepped in and emasculated the AAU in 1978, but Bowerman had already retired.]

McGroaraty would have had to play almost six games for the Packers in 1944, using provided equipment, to afford the membership fees a professional triathlete in 2012 pays to simply register for one IM race, let alone not show up naked and without a bike.
A long way of saying that the definition of professionalism in athletics has never been unanimous, or even always easy to define.  Results, qualification, payment, refusal of payment, public opinion, and acceptance, or simple participation have, at turns, determined athletes' status.

But what about the athlete's own idea of their professionalism?  I bet that Steve Prefontaine considered himself a professional athlete even when he stayed in hostels while racing in Europe - and representing the United States - because the AAU prohibited financial assistance to "amateurs" and Steve had to pay his own way. 

Coming to grips with just how far "off" I had become this past fall, it was my definition of my own professionalism that took one the biggest hits.  I knew I could get generally healthy again, but would I be able to train and compete up to standard again - USAT's standard, the general standard of being competitive, my own standard of giving it my best and not embarrassing myself?  How would I know if, and when?  What if the answer was ultimately no?

Consider me among the most surprised when as the year started, I felt good.  Although I decided to chalk "good" up to a lack of "bad," I suddenly craved racing in a way I had only previously experienced toward Diet Coke.  Metrics like "how do I feel today?" and "am I in fitness enough to race?" have a strange way of resetting themselves when the negative end of the spectrum is completely blown out.

Actually this picture is a pretty good analogy of how I was forced to sit and watch nearly every aspect of my definition of myself as a professional go up in smoke.  Every aspect save one: how a professional responds to being forced to sit and watch nearly every aspect of their definition of themselves as a professional go up in smoke.

New (temporary, but acceptable) personal definition of professionalism: do whatever necessary to participate, again.

Coach Lambeau certainly considered simply being allowed to participate incentive enough.  He made it clear that any additional and subsequent benefits would come as result of playing the kind of sport deserving of professional benefits.  [We shall avert our eyes from the fact that professional football contracts no longer quite embrace this philosophy.]

There was a time when I was afraid a 2012 season would be impossible.  There was a time when I thought a 2012 season might kinda be almost possible.  Now I know a 2012 season will happen.  It hasn't been set, but it has been discussed and is expected; participation is nigh.

No matter which definition of professional you choose to adopt, they all share one thing: you gotta play - or die trying - to earn it.

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