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Jamie McCourt raises a few good questions

December 04, 2008|KURT STREETER

If stirring the pot was what she was after, Jamie McCourt put in quite a performance as she spoke in a stream-of-consciousness way about the balance between her team's player payroll and the money it doles to the community for charity.

Since it took place, great scorn has been heaped upon McCourt -- and by extension, her team -- from corners far and wide.

But instead of unabashed scorn, I say she deserves praise.

Why?

First, McCourt and the Dodgers deserve kudos for their good work in the community, which isn't exactly novel for a pro franchise, but should be heralded nonetheless.

As important, Jamie McCourt should be thanked for opening up a box brimming with hard questions about the economy and sports, about players and owners and fans. Even if she did so unwittingly.

With the country in the midst of a recession, now is a good time to start wondering about the pillars of the sports marketplace.

Time to start wondering more about the ungodly salaries paid to adults who play kids games, about the money-hungry owners who gouge the faithful everywhere from the parking lot to the turnstiles.

Time for fans to realize they've got the real power: They can vote with their feet.

For those who missed what McCourt said, last week the Dodgers president stood at a Boyle Heights field, heralding her team's pledge to dole out a load of cash to re-model 42 urban baseball diamonds.

Speaking about her team, free-agent players and the downtrodden economy, McCourt also said this: "If you bring somebody in to play and pay them, pick a number, $30 million, does that seem a little weird to you? That's what we're trying to figure out. We're really trying to see it through the eyes of our fans. We're really trying to understand, would they rather have 50 fields?"

She kept going -- at this event and later -- musing about player contracts and the bottom line. With every explanation of intent she seemed to dig a deeper hole for herself, largely because the money the team spends on player payroll -- cash from the turnstiles a main ingredient -- comes from a different pot than the money spent on charity. In short, this shouldn't really be an either/or decision, but she presented it as one.

Make no mistake, what she said came out jumbled, but what she said also raised important questions.

Here's one: Manny Ramirez is said to want roughly $30 million to hit home runs and make us forget our troubles for a few hours at a time roughly 162 days a year. All of this is fine and dandy, but really, in this day and age, is any athlete worth that much?

I look at players as figurative CEOs, heads of their own private companies. Well, with the economy having tanked, we now get the willies when reading studies such as the one showing the CEOs of the biggest U.S. companies hauling in an average of $10.8 million a year -- 346 times what the average worker was paid. Some say executive pay should be somehow controlled or regulated.

How about thinking a little harder about the largesse dished out to top athletes?

And while we are at it, let's not forget about the real CEOs: fat-cat owners like Frank and Jamie McCourt.

Last I checked, it's not as if baseball has struggled the last few years. Revenues have rocketed, revenue sharing has been a boon -- just ask the Tampa Bay Rays.

Better yet, just ask the McCourts, who, according to reports, recently purchased side-by-side estates on the Malibu beachfront for just over $50 million.

I'm thinking aloud here, but maybe as we dive into this issue, an idea, maybe a crazy one, takes form: If baseball owners got together and discussed player salaries, they'd be accused of collusion and we'd soon see the mother-of-all sports lawsuits. So perhaps out of all the questioning comes a series of public, well-televised, cyber-connected symposiums involving owners from all of the major sports, players' representatives and even fans. (Yes, it's true that nothing real in the way of change may come of this, but sometimes talk leads to action. Besides, I'm a dreamer.)

On the table will be the examination of salaries, expectations and the responsibility teams have to their communities.

Is it OK for players and owners to keep raking in ungodly sums while not giving back more to the fans -- the cops, teachers and plumbers who sit in the bleachers and upper decks?

Should the unfettered market have the final say, rewarding on-field winners, punishing losers, probably not caring one bit about touchy-feely corporate charity?

Or should there be harder-nosed players salary caps, owners forced by leagues to share their wealth and spend more of their revenue on the public good.

Maybe, from all of this, the fans will start realizing that they are the ones with the real clout. They might discover a central truth: Staying away from stadium parking lots and turnstiles is the best way to send a message to the fat cats.

Just some questions to be pondered at my imagined symposium. Or in your living room with the Lakers on TV.

I'm still trying to make up my mind on them. This much I've come to. Mrs. McCourt should be thanked. She opened up a box full of hard questions.

Now it's time for us to dive inside and drag them out.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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