Greedy for a ring.

Photographer: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Is Clippers' Josh Smith 'Spoiled' for Wanting to Win?

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

Everyone's mad at new Los Angeles Clippers forward Josh Smith for appearing to lament that he's ­­only due to make $6.9 million next season. "It is going to be a little harder on me this year," Smith said in a widely circulated quote that has inspired snarky responses and even a satirical GoFundMe page. An athlete complaining about his millions at a time when the median household income is just over $53,000 and 15.4 percent of the country lives below the poverty line sure sounds like the tone-deaf ramblings of an entitled, spoiled brat. There's just one problem: That's not what he actually said.

For context: Smith recently signed a one-year deal worth the veteran's minimum of $1.5 million with the Clippers. He played most of last season with the Houston Rockets after the Detroit Pistons waived him in December with two years and $26 million guaranteed left on his contract. The Pistons owe Smith $5.4 million next season, bringing his total salary for 2015-16 to $6.9 million. 

Last week, the Clippers held a press conference to introduce their new free-agent signings, where Smith was asked about his decision to accept the veteran's minimum to join the team. Here's part of his answer: 

It wasn't about the money because of the Detroit situation, but at the end of the day, I do have a family, so it is going to be a little harder on me this year. But I'm going to push through it and try to do something long-term after this year.

Smith makes clear that his primary concern in his Clippers deal wasn't money, given the supplemental income he'll receive from the Pistons. Various basketball commentators had previously acknowledged this, noting the flexibility the guaranteed money gave Smith in negotiating with other teams. Rather, Smith was commenting on the instability of a one-year deal, both for his financial and basketball future, as well as the immediate impact on his home situation. Athletes' families often choose not to uproot themselves for one-year deals; if there's no guarantee Smith will remain in Los Angeles beyond next season, it makes sense that his wife and three kids might not want to move just yet. 

So everyone can put down the torches and step back from the blazing-hot keyboard. Smith wasn't complaining about his money. But I think it's worth asking why everyone was so quick to jump on him when they thought he was. I've made this point numerous times before, but there's a general perception by fans and media that athletes are overpaid and greedy. Sure, even the lowest-level major-league athlete likely makes vastly more than you or I do, and it's pretty easy to throw out lucrative player contracts as evidence of society's misplaced priorities -- an issue that certainly needs addressing. But it's infantile to suggest that Josh Smith's $6.9 million paycheck has any relation to our underpaying teachers relative to their education.

Rather, the widespread resentment toward athletes' compensation comes from our inability to look at high salaries not in absolute dollars but relative to what the market in their industry dictates -- not to mention the money their management pulls in. It seems to get worse when we're talking about basketball players, likely the result of the NBA having the highest average salaries among the major American sports leagues.

It's impossible to ignore the racial implications of that view, especially when it comes to basketball. The Shadow League's Evan F. Moore has written about the racial coding implicit in criticism of NBA free agents compared to their NHL counterparts, "even when they take LESS money" than they could. The notion that NBA players are greedy and entitled belies the reality of what we've seen during this offseason, with a number of top veteran free-agents taking big pay-cuts in cap-friendly deals that will help their new team win a championship. David West left $12 million on the table to join the San Antonio Spurs, but it's not as fun to praise him as it is to flog Smith.

This view of NBA players also ignores that they actually agreed to take a smaller revenue split with the owners in the current collective-bargaining agreement than they previously had, reducing their share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to near 50 percent. The deal also has salary caps and stipulates max contracts, artificially diminishing their pay. Yet contracts are highly publicized and essentially as affixed to a player's name as his name is on his jersey, while fans rarely consider his owner. And that's because many Americans view management differently -- the corporate boss deserving of his great bounty -- simply because it's easier for some to quantify a monetary investment in a business than the contributions of labor to making that business run. The owner "took the risk" in buying the club, even though a sports team is largely a vanity purchase with all kinds of tax benefits on its own, and the product he's selling is created solely by the players.

Railing on player pay also ignores the financial strife many face when they leave the game. It's easy to point to the spectacularly tragic stories of waste and carelessness -- some compared Smith to Latrell Sprewell, who famously turned down the Minnesota Timberwolves' three-year, $30 million offer as "insulting," only to have two of his houses foreclosed upon a few years later. But not all who go bankrupt are just irresponsible. They often overspend, sure, but many also fall victim to unsavory financial advisers and mooching members of their entourage. And their spending habits are right in line with their income bracket; a recent study found that the rich actually make worse financial decisions than the poor. The difference is athletes in general don't have the same business sense to deal with these mistakes as those who grew wealthy through traditional enterprise, and once they leave basketball, they're not really prepared to do anything else. It's why the NBA is trying to teach financial literacy in its Rookie Transition Program, and why Antoine Walker wishes he'd gone out for an MBA.

Many of these athletes suddenly went from poverty to enormous wealth overnight, at 20 years old, having sacrificed much of their education for basketball, for the purpose of entertaining us. It seems a paradox of our simultaneous disdain and envy for them that we maintain we would never act so foolishly with money. 

So the sports media and fans gleefully mock Josh Smith for what we thought he said as a form of comfort. Misguided resentment just needs to find a target.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net