There are two main reasons we love sports.
First, we get to marvel at skills we can only dream of possessing. Imagine standing 180 yards away from a 4½-inch target and having the ability to propel a golf ball within a few feet of the hole. Second, sports provide an escape. They are a place to hide from the world around us, a much-needed sanctuary to which we can retreat and recharge our batteries, giving us the energy needed to confront life on its sometimes demanding terms. In those uncertain days after Sept. 11, the golf course was a place where many sought the solitude of a few hours away from grim news and alarmist headlines. Such was the case again this weekend when the images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina wore away at the human spirit. Whether for a few hours in front of the TV watching, or outside playing, sports provided a much-needed respite from reality.
There is a weird disconnect when we watch a golfer trying to do his job and realize that the consequences for a poor swing are far from life-and-death, but more likely merely a matter of rich or richer.
Here was Olin Browne going down the stretch Monday at the Deutsche Bank Championship, trying to hang on for his first PGA Tour victory in six years. It was clear from some rushed swings on the back nine that the pressure was getting to him. Browne, who didn't start playing golf until he was 19 years old, is pretty much a journeyman, never finishing higher than 47th on the tour money list. But professional golf has become such a successful business that a journeyman can make a very nice living. Despite finishing outside the magic top 125 on the PGA Tour money list in both 2003 and 2004, Browne earned a combined $1,076,626 for those two years.
Browne's victory Monday translated to a direct deposit into his account of $990,000, putting him at $1,465,350 in winnings this year. Since 1992, this career journeyman has won $6.6 million.
Let's put that into a little bit of perspective. Last week, the Census Bureau reported that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, pushing the number of people living in poverty to 12.7 percent of the population. It was the fourth consecutive year the poverty level increased. And perhaps most staggering is how poverty is defined. A family of four earning $19,157 a year is the defining line for the poverty. That's a family of four -- no matter whether they live in the inner city or a rural area -- existing over the course of a year on less money than the person who finished 44th at the Deutsche Bank Championship made.
Certainly, salaries are out of whack across the board in sports. There was a time not that long ago when athletes had to work in the offseason in order to survive. When I was in high school, our class photographs were taken by Chuck Tanner, who at the time was a major-league baseball player and later managed the Pittsburgh Pirates to a world championship. Times were different back then. According to the Census Bureau, the median household income last year was $44,389. That's about what the guy who finished 26th at the Deutsche Bank earned.
While it provides us some comfort to hide from the horrific images coming out of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by watching Browne conquer his inner demons and win a golf tournament, we also must hope that those who are benefiting so grandly from the salaries and prize money they earn from fans are appreciating how fortunate they are and are giving back with utmost generosity.
The PGA Tour, LPGA, PGA of America, USGA, Augusta National Golf Club and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America have formed the U.S. Golf Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund, which they hope will generate $5 million in contributions. That's a start. Perhaps those organizations also should pledge to match the dollars the public contributes. Perhaps some of the top players need to do the same. Many players have foundations of their own and contribute quietly and privately to many good causes. But this is a time to be public about it, not as a way of boasting but as a way of encouraging others to give.
This Sunday, an extra 3,000 tickets will be made available for the sold-out Solheim Cup at Crooked Stick Country Club near Indianapolis for $40 a ticket. All revenue from those tickets will go to the U.S. Golf Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. Greg Norman has stepped forward and offered his private helicopter for relief efforts. And the prestigious Stanford University Golf Course will be open to the public on Sept. 19 for the first time since 1929. All revenues from the $100 green fee will be donated to the Red Cross.
This is all well and good, but more needs to be done, and athletes can be crucial in leading the way. This is what being a role model is all about.
There was a time when people could make a lot more money by being successful in business than by being successful in sports. That is not necessarily the case now. The leading money-winner on the PGA Tour this year -- Tiger Woods -- has earned nearly $9 million. And that's chump change in some of the team sports.
Let's hope in this time when athletes are earning millions that they also remember that millions are living in poverty -- and that hundreds of thousands in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are without a permanent roof over their heads. There are many ways athletes can be inspiring. It can be through their play, and it can be through their resolve. At this time, it should be through their generosity. This time, we need our athletes to be heroes off the playing field as well as on it.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.