November 23, 2000


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The lure of the lucre

Rohit Brijnath

These are the facts.

That when Tiger Woods plays, and is in place to win in the final round, television ratings increase by 30 to 50 per cent.

That Sean McManus, a CBS sports president told Sports Illustrated, that, "I don't ever remember an athlete, whether it's in a team sport or individual sport, I guess with the exception of Michael Jordan, who can so dramatically affect the amount of people watching a tournament.''

That because of this, television contracts have mushroomed, sponsorship has increased, golf is richer.

Tiger WoodsThat Tiger Woods has earned close $10 million in prize-money this year, has a new deal with Nike, and is also sponsored by Buick, Wheaties and American Express, and God knows who else.

Everybody should be happy, yes? On the other hand have you recently landed here from Venus? The issue is money in sport, someone's always unhappy.

Tiger told a golf magazine recently that he was displeased that the PGA Tour was using him to advertise the PGA Tour. What, they should use Jeev Milkha Singh? Or that other African American who can swing a golf club, Michael Jordan?

Tiger wasn't finished. He said he was being exploited. And yes, the kids who should be in school but are working in sweaty factories in third-world countries to make the Nike shoes he gets paid $100 million to wear, aren't. They're doing it out of love for him? Even though their annual salary wouldn't pay for the balls he loses in practice. Sorry, that's free too from Nike.

Hey, kid, you're a great golfer, but do us a favour. Shut up.

Guess what? Richard Williams has been reading from the same sheet music as Tiger. Guess what? He's out of tune too.

Venus and Serena WilliamsVenus and Serena make the women's tour watchable, they're Steffi and Monica from the same family, they've turned a lily-white sport into a triumph of African-American muscle and speed. Do people come to see them? Do bars have stools? Do they make money? Or is the $6 million they made, just in prize-money, just this year, constitute petty cash?

It needs to be said because Williams Sr says such is their effect on TV ratings, they should get a cut. It's a statement that's got greed tricking from every pore.

Hey, Mr. Williams, Martina Navratilova, who won 18 Grand Slam titles, read again 18, got her first major sponsorship deal this year. Long since she retired. Because as a lesbian she wasn't marketable. Though she did more for the women's game than your girls have yet. So please, steady on, let's not talk about who deserves what.

What's with Tiger and Williams? What's with greed and sport? Why is the pay cheque never enough? I'm all for player getting paid, and well, but endless wantings got to have a finish line. Problem is, it doesn't.

My father believes there's something sinful, inappropriate, lopsided, in a man getting $800,000 for wielding a tennis racket skilfully over seven playing days in Flushing Meadows when a schoolteacher's monthly salary is three zeroes less. My father's old school, in his time Rod Laver got a silver salver, maybe a thin envelope under the table and a few complimentary beers.

Hey dad, it gets worse.

Ivan Lendl, so goes one rumour, used to charge sponsors thousands of extra dollars for every extra few miles he had to fly. Sportsmen when they travel to tournaments get a limousine to pick them up, get a free suite in top hotels, find presents laden in their room (watches/crystal/luggage), can ask for the best tickets for any Broadway show, go on a golfing day off during a tennis tournament and be given 3-4 free T-shirts. In India cricketers get paid to show up at a party, to cut a ribbon for a new shop, get presented Mercedes cars after a particularly good innings. What's next, Rs 1000 for a handshake? (And I haven't even talked about selling their wickets, yet)

Still, when I had breakfast once with a cricketer on tour, he called for separate checks. Another Indian cricketer, having played perhaps just two Tests for India was offered Rs 2.5 million or more from a soft drink company.

He refused it. Relax, he said, I'm worth more and I'll get it. And so he did.

Some of this is understandable. Sport is business, the players are employees, and if the company's doing well they should get some return. In addition, sport is a short-term career, with no guarantees once you've turned 32, so what then?

But there is a fine invisible line between due reward and bad taste. As David Halberstam, Michael Jordan's biographer wrote, the basketballer once refused to put his weight behind a local Democratic candidate. Fine? Except when Jordan said, "Republicans also buy shoes", it left a smell you usually get at a public convenience.

Tennis players duelling with tournament directors for an appearance fee, eventually settling for a modest $500,000 for showing up, and then losing in the first or second round, and still banking the fee, has a similar odour.

The list is endless. A very popular kids quiz contest in India, invites a celebrity quizmaster every show. Of the hundreds of guests requested to make an appearance, only one, at last count asked for a fee. It was a former cricketer.

Now comes Tiger and Williams, men in danger of believing their own myths, besotted by their own uniqueness, ready it seems to have their faces carved on Mt. Rushmore.

Fact is, golf without Tiger would be incomplete, the Sistine Chapel without Michelangelo's work. But he does not make the PGA Tour; the players do. If they left they'd be no Tour; if Tiger left they would just be deep disappointment.

A young man with silken skills and a fine mind should be able to tell the difference.

Rohit Brijnath

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