Kobe: All About the Benjamins, and that’s OK

kobe bryant

I brace myself whenever I see stories of sports mega-stars getting signed to big mega-deals for inevitable flood by internet trolls and uncreative sportswriters of pro-boss, pro-owner critiques of athlete greed. Let’s be clear, criticizing pro athletes for signing big contracts is backwards and un-progressive. There’s an insidious subtext that demonizes pro athletes while upholding the interest of owners that is frankly, wack.

Case in point, today Kobe Bryant signed a $48.5 million, two-year deal with the Lakers, ensuring that he’ll be ending his career as a Laker, and providing great hater fodder: How dare he take such a huge deal! This ruins the Lakers’ cap space! He’s not even worth it! Why didn’t he take less money so the Lakers could build a championship?!

Twitter was on fire with along two predictable axes. Kobe haters lined up to point out that Kobe was being incredibly selfish (even greedy if you will!) and ruining the Lakers’ chances at winning anything, evar.  Of course, Kobe and Friends responded with a straight up denial of reality, that the Lakers are more poised than ever to gut its team to lure another max contract star and win again.

I will be upfront, at Picked Last is largely full of Laker and Kobe partisans, in fact, I’m sure it’s one of our original points of unity. Kobe is a really easy target to hate on, but I will argue that in this case, this was the right deal. I will also set aside the question of “does the this make the Lakers better”, since that makes me sad right now.

The Lakers can afford it.

In 2011, the Lakers signed a $3 BILLION deal with Time Warner for a 20-year TV deal. Forbes valued the Lakers as the second most valuable franchise in the league, worth a nice round $1 billion. The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement does penalize teams that overspend past it’s salary cap, but even the penalties is chump change compared to the $197 million in projected revenue for 2013.

Why should Kobe take less?

Sure, there are many examples of players who have agreed to play for less so their teams can build a winner. Some of them even seem to be nice people, like Tim Duncan (but there’s also jerks like Kevin Garnett). But let’s not valorize a player’s willingness to leave money on the table. This doesn’t make that person a better teammate or even a better person. That’s a logical leap that makes for fluff pieces about “good guys” and playing ball the “right way” but isn’t really about the economic relationships between players and their bosses. If anything, it obscures those relationships by reinforcing the norm that players should not be all about the benjamins when in fact sports is most definitely all about the benjamins.

NBA teams are making out like bandits – look at this chart on how underpaid LeBron James is. If players got paid what they really earned teams, they would be running the league. In fact, why aren’t they already just running the league? Side note, how crazy would it be if the NBA were a player owned cooperative. If my local bakery can run as a coop, really, so could pro sports.

Kobe is worth $48.5M because both Kobe and the Lakers think he’s worth $48.5M

It takes two to sign a contract. This simple fact gets overlooked way too often by sports commentators. Especially with players who under perform their contracts, or when owners want to cry poverty when at the bargaining table with the union. This is not about Kobe being “greedy” and not when this was the Lakers’ offer. Its entirely unsurprising yet instructive that Kobe and the Lakers didn’t negotiate at all. And even if the Lakers didn’t offer Kobe the full extension, he should’ve asked for it anyway, given what he knows of the Lakers.

Again, this is about the Lakers as a franchise – they are wealthy enough that it doesn’t matter. But it’s also about the structure of the NBA. Sports is about competition, winners and losers, not fundamentally about parity between franchises or teams. The NBA needs franchises and players like the the Lakers and Kobe because not just because they’re loved or have fans, but because they can be deeply hated. This is something pro wrestling has down to science – it’s a about building up heels as much as it is heroes.

At the end of the day, Kobe getting paid $48.5 M matters because in this case, labor and management figured out a way to handle business and just move on with the work. This is in an age where management can seemly just back out of agreements because of a reading “mistake.”

Finally as Picked Last reader @lzlee pointed out, Kobe’s signing has a huge windfall for the state of California through the state income tax. If we apply the same formula used to calculate Kobe’s 2013-14 state income tax bill, it means $6.45M paid into California’s public schools, social services, and other infrastructure over the course of the two years. And thanks to California’s Millionaire’s Tax, Kobe will be paying into the top bracket of an revenue stream expected to generate between $6-9 billion a year. That’s not a bad take.

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One comment

  1. JJ

    Great post! Really can’t be reiterated enough how the proper context for workers wages should be capitalist profits and not the wages of other workers.

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