Ed. note: Please welcome Darren Heitner to the pages of Above the Law, where he’ll be writing about sports and the law.
Stephen Curry has a base salary of over $40 million for the 2019-20 National Basketball Association season. Curry is joined by six other NBA players, including LeBron James and James Harden, whose base salaries for the season eclipse $37 million. While the base salaries those players’ earn from a single season should easily be more than enough money for the average American to live a very comfortable life, players like Curry, James, and Harden are outliers and not representative of the NBA at large.
The disparity between the NBA’s highest earners and those earning minimum, or close to minimum, salaries was brought up recently by Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum in reference to how a canceled season due to coronavirus concerns could lead to economic issues for a number of NBA players. McCollum addressed the subject in an interview with former Duke Basketball star and current TV analyst Jay Williams.
“I would say out of 450 players, 150 probably are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” McCollum said.
McCollum was certainly speaking off-the-cuff and without any data in hand nor any deep analysis having been conducted by him or any of his advisors. He also received a fair amount of criticism for expressing his belief, with many people questioning how it could be possible that individuals who are compensated so handsomely could possibly be merely surviving on future paychecks.
While it may not be exactly 33% of NBA players living paycheck-to-paycheck, McCollum’s estimate is likely not a far cry from reality.
“I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I believe the number is about right; however, paycheck-to-paycheck may be a bit of an overstatement,” said Leon McKenzie, president of Sure Sports, which specializes in lending to professional athletes. “Most players like to have some reserves, but missing a full paycheck would create almost immediate hardship, and missing two paychecks would create hardship for a lot of players in the league.”
McKenzie said that the median income in the NBA is $2.5 million, which is also the same as the veteran minimum salary. A lot of players making less than $2.5 million have only been in the NBA for three to four years or less. The are also often the breadwinner and taking care of several adults. Cutting off their income stream would be a very big deal, according to McKenzie.
The 300th-highest base salary for the 2019-20 NBA season belongs to one of McCollum’s teammates, guard Anfernee Simons, per a ranking of base salaries by the contract database Spotrac. Simons is in the second year of a rookie deal that would pay him a total base salary of $2.15 million for the 2019-20 NBA season, after earning $1.835 million for his rookie season one year ago. These are pre-tax salaries that also do not take into account any expenses or fines that players must pay for violating NBA rules.
Simons skipped college and went straight to the NBA through a loophole that allowed him to circumvent the one-and-done rule that typically requires an athlete to spend at least one year at a university before turning pro. He is one example of many current NBA players who likely did not come from wealth, but is now in charge of managing a seven-figure salary. A work stoppage that leads to a reduction or complete halt of payments can be devastating for Simons and the roughly 150 NBA players earning smaller base salaries.
While Simons may not be living paycheck-to-paycheck, consider a player like Chris Silva, who was playing out his first year with the Miami Heat earning a base salary of $467,000. Silva neither spoke English nor boarded an airplane before leaving his home of Gabon in Africa to come to the United States in 2012. He traveled to the United States with the intention of making an NBA roster and helping out his family back in Gabon. This was his first year earning a decent salary, and it is not surprising that someone like Silva would be living paycheck-to-paycheck.
“I think a lot of guys are going to be hurting, especially people on minimums or people that didn’t just budget correctly and didn’t expect this to happen,” McCollum said, concerning the prolonged shutdown of the NBA season due to COVID-19. “Maybe they loaned money or paid money to family. Maybe they’re taking care of multiple people and now there’s a work stoppage for us and for a lot of people in America.”
McCollum is correct. There are many players, although perhaps not a whopping 33% of the NBA, who are living paycheck-to-paycheck for various reasons. It could be that they come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, that they are not properly managing their money or that they are new to the NBA and have the burden of caring for their families.
NBA players have been paid their salaries in full thus far while games are not being played for health and safety reasons. However, that could soon be changing, which is why McCollum’s comments are so relevant. The next scheduled payments for players is April 15, and the NBA had proposed that players take a 50% paycheck reduction starting on that date. A 50% reduction in pay would have likely caused significant hardship for players living paycheck-to-paycheck. However, as of April 9, the NBA agreed that payments would be made in full to players on April 15. Now, players will wonder whether they will also be paid in full on the next pay date of May 1.
“I don’t think most of the players are fully aware of their economic position,” McKenzie said. “We are gearing up for what is going to happen a week or two after April 15. We have not seen any uptick in basketball, but we have seen a big uptick in baseball because they haven’t been paid in six months. In other sports, you learn how to live without a paycheck because you aren’t paid year-round. From the time these guys become pros in basketball, they become used to regular payment all year.”
Darren Heitner is the founder of Heitner Legal. He is the author of How to Play the Game: What Every Sports Attorney Needs to Know, published by the American Bar Association, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. You can reach him by email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @DarrenHeitner.
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