Is Kobe Bryant Worth 23 Million Dollars?

The island nation of Tuvalu is just one of many in the South Pacific. There’s nothing terribly unusual about it, except that its annual GDP (gross domestic product, or the final value of all goods and services produced within a country’s borders) is less than Kobe Bryant’s $20 million yearly paycheck.

Think about that for a second. Kobe could literally buy Tuvalu, and still have more money left over than you, me and probably every other New U reader combined. Bryant isn’t royalty. He’s not a scientist who cured cancer. He’s not even a business mogul with a winning idea.

He throws a ball around for a few hours a week.

Kobe Bryant isn’t the only person who is making a fortune in professional sports. Forbes.com recently ranked the NBA’s most overpaid players, and the shocking thing to me was not these players’ unimpressive statistics, but the fact that anyone anywhere was locking in four-year, $58 million contracts. So by the time freshmen in Middle Earth have finally scraped together a biological sciences degree, 22-year-old Andrew Bynum will be ready to retire. In a time of economic uncertainty for most people, why do professional athletes continue to make disgusting amounts of money? The thought is certainly infuriating when you’re digging in your couch for lunch money or preparing to mail in yet another rising tuition payment. But we have to remember that not only is it perfectly fair, it actually benefits us too.

Suppose you think Bynum makes too much money. So let’s cut his salary by 90 percent. Hell, let’s cut it by 99 percent and really leave him out in the cold. But that $57.5 million you slashed isn’t going to be magically moved to fight AIDS or world hunger or to your next round of textbook purchases, it’s going to turn into a raise for one of the suits in L.A. Lakers management. Fire him and maybe it becomes an increased “travel budget” for the team. Cut that budget, and the bosses decide to buy Kobe a few dozen more houses. The point is that the money belongs to the Lakers, and they have every right to throw it away on Bynum if they so choose. Laker fans have already given their approval: they put the $58 million in the team’s pocket in the first place.

Sports teams are first and foremost a business venture. Just because they’re successful enough to be able to spend money like water does not mean we have a right to get indignant. What can we do? Theoretically, we could stop spending thousands of dollars on tickets, shut the TV off whenever we see the NBA logo and refuse to care about the score of the big game. But if you’re a true fan of the game, then we both know that isn’t going to happen.

Where many fans do lose their cool is when the scandals begin. Remember in 2003, when our old friend Kobe had that ugly sexual assault incident? How about the A-Rod steroids epic? And didn’t famed running back OJ Simpson have some ugliness with his wife a while back? Sure, these events were all deplorable, and it definitely seems unfair that Bryant faced such accusations and is still collecting such large sums. But it isn’t as though he was completely unaffected. Public backlash towards Bryant led to the termination of several of his large endorsements, including McDonald’s and Nutella, and the dramatic slide of his jersey sales from number 10 to 90 in the NBA.

While these were all intense blows to Bryant financially and it may have appeared that his career was over, in the end the Lakers made the call to keep him employed. The fans grumbled but kept watching, and today the incident has been all but forgotten. The moral of the story is that financial support is the best indication of a society’s opinion; fans throwing money at a company is just about the best positive reinforcement possible.

But here’s the good news. Political reasons aside, why couldn’t Kobe actually buy Tuvalu? It’s because he doesn’t actually make it home with all 20 million of those dollars. It’s because as proud Americas, we tax the hell out of him. Frankly, it’d be better for you and me if they raised his salary. In addition to the healthy state income tax that we charge Bryant, Bynum and every other Laker each year, there’s this wonderful thing called the “Jock Tax.” Meaning, whenever professional athletes travel to another state for a game, they’re required to pay that state income taxes for all money earned from that game. If the Staples Center were to host enough basketball games, we could quite literally rebound all the way to a balanced state budget with all that lovely out-of-state money. Ordinary citizens outraged with exorbitant salaries sometimes forget about the exorbitant tax brackets that accompany them.

A US senator draws in $174,000 a year, Vice President Joe Biden makes a little over $200,000, and Mr. O himself takes home a cool $400,000. These are numbers that you could get angry about. In contrast to the Lakers, they seem pretty reasonable. The difference is that you and I are required to supply these salaries in the mandatory taxes that we pay every year. But when you consciously decide to drop $100 for an official Lakers jersey, or even just switch on the game, you lose all rights to anything but shock and envy when you hear how much the pros are paid.

Jeremy Moore is a second-year English major. He can be reached at jsmoore@uci.edu.