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Would You Play A Professional Sport For Free?

Submitted by on May 18, 2010 – 9:41 am11 Comments

When it comes to professional athletes getting paid, they usually get a bad rap. There’s a reason for that, too. Guys averaging a point in the NBA catching $50 million, multi-year checks? Uh, yeah. Rookies playing Double-A in some Major League Baseball team’s minor league farm system for a couple million? Yessir. And underachieving NFL prospects cashing millions of dollars worth of signing bonuses before they play a single down in the league? Helloooooo, JaMarcus Russell!

Even top-notch players like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in the NBA, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter in Major League Baseball and Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the NFL are making more money than they probably should. It’s just the way the (sports) world works.

It’s what makes a recent story about AC Milan soccer player Oguchi Onyewu so interesting. For starters, I had no idea who Onyewu was until yesterday. You probably didn’t, either. As I type this, I’m spell-checking his name five times every time I type it to make sure I’ve got it right. I’m also not a soccer fan. It ranks right up there with hockey for me (leave your hate mail in the comments section, NHL fans—though I have, admittedly, tuned into a few play hockey games this month, so have some mercy!). But what Onyewu did recently is astounding when you consider the salaries pro athletes make today: He agreed to play an entire season for AC Milan for free.

This should interest you for a variety of reasons. One, Onyewu earns his living playing overseas, but he’s also a member of the U.S. national team that’s headed to the World Cup. So despite the fact that he’s saving someone else’s cash, it’s good to see an American athlete stepping up and doing the right thing. He’s also setting an interesting precedent here, because he’s making the decision to play an entire year for free as a result of the fact that he spent most of the last year sitting on the sidelines injured.

Granted, there are several different ways to look at Onyewu’s sacrifice. Some blogs have suggested Onyewu could have done more good by taking a year’s salary and donating it to a good cause. Others have stated that Onyewu is just putting money back into AC Milan’s owner’s pocket. And the rest are just astonished that an athlete would even consider doing anything for free.

But here’s why this just might work: Onyewu is keeping himself in the good graces of AC Milan fans by extending his contract through the 2012-2013 season. So while he’s technically just giving himself another year to play on the team (sort of like a college basketball or football player redshirting a season to get an extra one tacked on later), in the eyes of soccer fans, sports enthusiasts and bloggers, he’s shown up injury-prone guys like Greg Oden of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers who collects checks for showing up to games in suits. He’s established a way to make fans forget all about a situation where a player has to sit on the bench for a long period of time due to injury.

By simply adding a year onto your contract like Onyewu, players would give fans an opportunity to come out and see them actually play later. You collect a check while you’re injured and not playing (free money!) and then show the fans that you’re committed to the team by doing something for it later. You make yourself look good and show your teammates that you’re about more than just collecting a paycheck. And you pretty much assure yourself of the fact that you’ll be able to play for a team later, regardless of how poorly or how well you do because…you’re playing for free.

Okay, okay. It’s delusional to think this will ever catch on in the United States. It almost makes too much sense. Guys would rather be rich and hated than still-rich-but-slightly-less-rich and beloved. If it did ever catch, NFL players would be giving back ridiculous signing bonuses—and getting a chance to stick around to show the teams that drafted them what they’re really made of. So would MLB players. And NBA guys stuck on the end of the bench would make headlines for more than just underachieving. Frankly? It probably won’t happen. But Oguchi Onyewu’s story makes it sound like it should.

Photo: Courtesy of The Washington Post

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