Big buck athletes laugh all the way to the bank

Oct 18, 2005 2:37 AM

What does it take in life until you reach the point where you couldn’t care less, or give a damn, what anyone else thinks of you?

For some, never. Whether pride or ego, there are some, rich and poor, who care immensely how others regard them.

There are others, suddenly rich as Cresceus with gold beyond dreams, who need not care a whit if they choose. They are, by their special strength or talents or specialized expertise, beyond the pale of others’ opinions. They are the ones, often from modest backgrounds, whose natural gifts set them apart and assure their futures.

There is golfer Michelle Wie, who for her 16th birthday last week received contracts from Nike and Sony worth as much as $10 million a year.

There is basketball player Amare Stoudemire, who will be paid more than $73 million over the next five years by the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, plus whatever Nike pours out of its limitless shoes for endorsements. Stoudemire called it "my $100 million summer." Think about that for a minute, in relation to what the world’s leaders and greatest scientists and brain surgeons receive.

There is Joe Torre, manager of the New York Yankees, who must mull over whether to walk away, or be pushed away, from his $13 million a year contract after failing to make the World Series again this year.

We raise these issues because of the circumstances surrounding them.

In Ms. Wie’s case, the Associated Press speculated on snobbery that might be extended to her on the pro tour, which she just joined, rather than a warm welcome or jubilation that golf has a new star, and perhaps a female Tiger Woods.

Woods, asked about this, said of his debut, "Some guys gave me the cold shoulder. Some guys wouldn’t talk to me at all."

Nike talked to him, of course, a conversation that led to a $40 million contract. Not as well remembered is that Woods missed the cut on his first seven tries as a pro on the PGA tour. It turned out, of course, that the cold shoulder was unjustified and inexcusable, but the $40 million contract probably was money well spent, if you believe people buy shoes because Tiger Woods endorses them.

For Amare Stoudemire, seven days after he signed his five-year, $73 million contract, he announced he would undergo diagnostic surgery on his left knee. The Suns knew about the problem, because Stoudemire sat out the last two days of training camp in Tucson, and got opinions from three different surgeons before opting for arthroscopic surgery.

The Suns coach, Mike D’Antoni, predicted that unless serious damage is discovered, Stoudemire would miss three or four weeks of action.

But what if serious damage is discovered? Then what, and what happens to the $73 million? Is it cut to $50 million? $25 million? What if Stoudemire can play, but not at full speed or strength? There is an even more basic question: is any basketball player worth $73 million to any franchise? And could Amare Stoudemire care about the answer, being secure for life.

In Joe Torre’s case, it is no contest. His popularity with New York Yankees fans and press, in relation to public sentiment and media savagery for his boss George Steinbrenner, gives him a giant edge. Beyond that, his baseball savvy, even with the Yankees out of the Series again, leaves him impervious to concern about what Steinbrenner does, or what he decides to do. There is no way Joe Torre can be out of a job in major league baseball for more than the blink of a batter’s eye.

Security at major league levels in sport is not the same as in business or industry. If you are as good as Wie, or Stoudemire, or Torre, you can be indifferent to criticism or envy or worry or caring.

Whether that is as it should be is a different question. The American public apparently thinks it is, since it pays the bills without too much complaint. The best in any field of sports is guaranteed huge, and perhaps obscene, returns, and while the world may be upside down that phenomenon is not likely to change.