Should NBA Olympians get paid?

April, 12, 2012
4/12/12
9:36
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen believe they should.

Allen told Fox Sports' Chris Tomasson that joining a Dream Team and heading off to places like Beijing or London comes with great personal sacrifice:
You talk about the patriotism that guys should want to play for, but you [need to] find a way to entice the guys. ... It's not the easiest thing in the world if you play deep in the playoffs and then you get two, three weeks off and then you start training again to play more basketball where it requires you to be away from home and in another country. It's fun, but your body does need a break.

Everybody says, "Play for your country." But [NBA players are] commodities, your businesses. You think about it, you do camps in the summer, you have various opportunities to make money. When you go overseas and play basketball, you lose those opportunities, what you may make. ... If I'm an accountant and I get outsourced by my firm, I'm going to make some money somewhere else.

If it's licensing ... [the players] are wearing jerseys and [others, but not the players, are] making money off it. Something [should be done] just to say to the guys, "Hey, you guys are spending this much time, 40 days, playing basketball, we're paying for some type service that you provide, that you're getting some kind of kickback." ... I know that you sell unlimited jerseys so I think the players should get some piece of that.

ESPN.com's Michael Wallace bounced Allen's thoughts off Wade, who offered a similar response:
It's a lot of things you do for the Olympics -- a lot of jerseys you sell. ... We play the whole summer. I do think guys should be compensated. Just like I think college players should be compensated as well. Unfortunately, it's not there. But I think it should be something, you know, there for it.

... The biggest thing is now you get no rest. ... So you go to the end of the season, [Team USA] training camp is two weeks later. You're giving up a lot to do it. It's something you want to do. But it's taxing on your body. You're not playing for the dollar. But it would be nice if you would get compensated.

Wade later backtracked, tweeting, "BUT my love 4 the game & pride 4 USA motivates me more than any $$ amount. I repped my country in 2004 when we won the bronze medal and stood proudly to receive our gold medal in 2008 in Beijing. It's always been an honor for me to be a part of the USA Olympic family ... and I'm looking forward to doing it again in London this summer."

Wade, like Allen, also cited the time commitment.

Let's enumerate Allen and Wade's argument:
  • Opportunity cost: As Allen argues, every hour devoted to Olympic training, flying overseas and playing as an Olympian is an hour you're not attending to your personal entrepreneurial pursuits, charities and resting your body for the grueling NBA season.
  • Fairness: Fans buy Team USA basketball apparel -- lots of it. You see far fewer folks wearing speed-skating gear, Michael Phelps swim caps or even USA soccer jerseys, and that's because the elite players who wear those Team USA basketball jerseys drive merchandise sales. Wade draws the parallel between Olympians and amateur athletes who are prohibited from earning a cent for playing despite earning billions in revenue for the NCAA and its participating schools.

These arguments are difficult to dismiss out of hand, because Allen and Wade aren't incorrect: Committing to Team USA requires giving up a ton of time and generates a load of money for those licensed to sell those jerseys (as well as those licensing them). There's also nothing unpatriotic or unseemly about their comments. What's more American than expressing unpopular opinions even if it offends our collective sense of patriotism?

On Wednesday, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo responded to Allen and Wade (via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today):
All of the money that is generated from our participation and the competitions the senior teams participate in in effect subsidizes and pays for the entire U.S. Olympic [basketball] programs and that includes all of the junior programs where most of these players came from. ... Most of them all started there, men and women.

When I took over the program in 2005, they were in a terrible losing situation financially. ... During the next four years, I quadrupled the revenue, but that only brought us to break-even. That covers all of the expenses for the men, women, boys and girls, all the way down. We sell sponsorship, sell tickets to exhibition games.

Another reality is, most of the players, and in fact until this comment today, I would have said 100 percent of them, understand that there's some great value to them individually for participating if they so choose to ...

... The opportunity to represent your country is a privilege without anything further said, that's No. 1. ... No. 2, the experience broadens individuals in every regard and every respect because you experience things you would not have under any other circumstance -- the travel, the people you meet.

Thirdly, the brand. We live in a global economy. All of our players have shoe contracts and apparel contracts and they're little mini-business onto themselves and in some cases, they're not mini-businesses, they're quite substantial.

Colangelo's most persuasive point? "... [T]here's some great value to them individually for participating if they so choose to."

It's the part about choice that's most compelling.

Even if Colangelo overstates the value of enhancing an athlete's personal brand in front of an audience of billions (there's no evidence he is or isn't), and even if he places a higher value on the spirit of patriotism than those wearing the jerseys (he might be), the onus is on the players to run the cost-benefit analysis for themselves.

No NBA player is forced to participate -- and not so long ago, Olympians in certain corners of the world were forced to play basketball, despite having serious and legitimate political objections.

In Tomasson's piece, Rajon Rondo candidly said he had no interest in playing for Team USA because he values his time off during the summer. That's Rondo weighing the value of exposure and country against personal time. His priorities may offend the sensibilities of some, but he's made his choice, even if some object to the rationale of his decision-making.

So let's flip Allen's free-market argument on its head: If Colangelo can sign up 12 talented players (and who says they need to be NBA players?) and a coaching staff who are willing to participate for no compensation because they recognize the value of doing so for their personal brands, why should the committee pay those who object?

Allen and Wade aren't wrong, but Rondo is the player talking the most sense.

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