In the wake of President Trump’s “All Massas Matter” speech in Alabama in which he urged NFL team owners to get their players in line, I’ve noticed something about many who stand with Trump and against athletes who dare speak out.
In many cases the argument against the athlete involves his money. These commenters use “multimillionaire” in front of “athlete” as if it’s a pejorative. They also use “overpaid” or even “spoiled.” They are saying rich athletes do not have the right to protest precisely because they’re rich. Newt Gingrich ran down these lines on Fox & Friends when he referred to the athletes as millionaires over and over—using the term with comic frequency. It’s clearly part of his talking points.
“Watching young guys who are millionaires explain that the country hasn’t been good to them,” he says. Later: “They’re arrogant young millionaires who shouldn't inflict their politics… If you’re a multimillionaire who feels oppressed, you need a therapist, not a publicity stunt.”
Gingrich has it backward: The black millionaire who needs a therapist is one who feels like black people aren’t oppressed because he himself is a millionaire. But my real question is this: Why is a player’s large paycheck a critical part of the argument and why is it used as a disqualifier?
This is a particularly bizarre sentiment in America, where having lots of money is, in and of itself, proof of your importance. In this country, we’re taught to listen to people who have money just because they have money. The only reason why anyone listened to Trump in the decades before he was president is because he was wealthy. So why is it that having money means we should listen to you—except if the money is made by an athlete?
I think part of the answer lies in one of the central ideas of the modern right wing—the notion of who is hard-working and who is not. If you listen to Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh for just 10 minutes, you’ll hear them describe their followers as “hard-working,” and imply or say outright that the other side is lazy and wanting handouts, which is code for entitlement programs and welfare.
Conservatism’s stance against taxation and entitlements and big government requires this. Those who would accept welfare must be seen as lacking character and totally unlike us, allowing the rest of us to look down at them, and stay behind the push to reform or remove the system. In Hannityworld, “hard-working” is all but a synonym for white, while lazy or welfare recipient, of course, means people of color.
All of this dog-whistling has barely enough wiggle room for people to say this isn’t about race, but of course it is. Trump’s comment that all this isn’t about race is laughable—he’s deliberately urging the NFL’s owners and fans, who are predominantly white, to take action that would punish protesting NFL players, who are overwhelmingly black.
He’s trying to silence black players on behalf of offended whites. He’s pushing racial buttons and taking sides. When he says it isn’t about race, you just have to wonder if he knows he’s lying or if he’s not consciously aware of what he’s doing. Is he being dishonest or completely incompetent? I’m really not sure.
If you believe that athletes are naturally gifted, as so many black athletes are—I mean, remember Allen Iverson saying, “we in here talkin ’bout practice?”—then you probably think that they’re lazy (read: black) while you are hard-working.
So while you’re breaking your back for peanuts, they’re making millions playing a game that they can do in their sleep. And they’re also complaining about America, which is working out a lot better for them than it is for you. Thus in a time of widespread economic anxiety, some Trump fans are nursing their economic jealousy of players—and booing those who take a knee and saying their money means they should shut up.
People are feeling like these athletes have had millions delivered to them on a platter and they should be grateful and know their place and not interrupt the entertainment with a dose of reality.
The issue of being grateful is important. As Jelani Cobb says in The New Yorker, “Ungrateful is the new uppity.” The sense is—why can’t they just be grateful to live in America, where they can get rich playing a game? If they don’t love America unconditionally, then they should leave it. I’ve never understood the “love it or leave it” ethos because America is all about protest and dissent, so demanding that we leave America because we have a critique of our young nation seems inherently un-American. But I digress.
We know they work extremely hard year round and we know they are risking their lives to play the game—a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found CTE in the brains of 99 percent of former NFL players and 91 percent of former college players. Given the near certainty of contracting CTE from playing football, they’re getting paid to do a job that will very likely be the death of them. When you realize that, they no longer seem so overpaid.
These are citizens getting a lot of money for their work, but they’re also getting market value in a highly competitive marketplace for rare skills that take years of monklike focus to develop and refine. And the notion that they’re all millionaires is foolhardy: The average NFL salary is about $2 million a year, but that number is misleading because of the small number of quarterbacks who get paid double-digit millions.
A less noisy number that gives a truer window into what most NFL players are making is the median NFL salary. That’s around $860,000 and after you’ve paid the government and your agent, you’re so not a millionaire. NFL money for most players is so low that according to a famous Sports Illustrated study, within two years of retirement about 80 percent of NFL players are under serious financial stress or broke.
One financial blogger found that only 3 percent of all million-dollar tax returns are filed by taxpayers who are under the age of 35, which means that there are actually very few millionaires in professional sports.
To think playing in the NFL is a cushy job where most people make millions is just not reality. Some $860,000 a year is a lot of money, but even though they’re pro athletes, they’re still American citizens, and if they have a platform and enough awareness to know that there’s a life-and-death problem facing their community, then for them to not say something would be immoral. I looked at the argument that their protest is disruptive in a previous article.
And if your economic jealousy is still running hot, then perhaps you should consider this: One reason why pro athletes make as much as they do is because they have strong unions fighting for them. Professional athlete unions are among the last strong unions in America. The average American worker once had strong unions fighting for them. Those unions were systematically dismantled over many years by the GOP in order to help big business, thus leaving workers vulnerable to the economic pain that eventually made people so angry that they turned to Trump. But hey, you’re hard-working, you don’t need a union, right?