Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Heroes for Sale
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We're rightly outraged by athletes' use of illegal steroids and their lying about it. But what of their other tawdry conduct driven by lust for huge financial rewards at the expense of gullible fans, impressionable youngsters and star-struck adults alike?

Take a look at the personal website of the athlete at the heart of the steroid scandal, Barry Bonds. This is a guy who was paid $15 million by the San Francisco Giants for playing baseball last season, but who's hustling for even more bucks by peddling, among other high quality merchandise, "exclusive 700 memorabilia that Barry has put together for you."

The items, commemorating Bonds' 700th career home run last season, range from a cuddly teddy bear garbed in an appropriate T-shirt for $14.99 to autographed balls bearing the inscription, "700 HRS," for just $699.99, a mere $600 without the inscription.

Bonds hopes to make even more out of his 660th homer, linking it with the career total of 660 hit by his godfather, Willie Mays. Jointly signed bats, jerseys and other items commemorating No. 660 go for up to $3995.95 each. (Clever merchandising, eh, that 95 and 99 cent pricing.)

But if you think that's perhaps a bit much, consider "The Ultimate Experience" fan fest that Bonds and his merchandising people put on at a Manhattan hotel with the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and his merchandisers in December. More than 50 fans paid up to $7500 apiece, a bargain $10,000 for couples, to spend five minutes each chatting alone with Bonds and Rodriguez between nibbles of Beluga caviar and other pricey snacks.

Bonds made about $4 million in addition to his Giants salary in 2004 for such hustling of fans. But he's hardly unique. Nor is he the highest paid hustler, not even among baseball players. That honor goes to Derek Jeter, who'll made $6 million last year on top of the $19 million salary he got from the Yankees.

Jeter is a piker, however, compared with the champion, professional golfer Tiger Woods. His take last year amounted to $70 million, most of it from endorsing products, the most lucrative source of easy money for greedy jocks.

They are quite willing to use their reputations and popular standing to try to con us into buying whatever goods and services they're paid to try to con us into buying, pretending that they actually prefer the goods and services, praising them because they get paid for praising them. Not as bad as lying about steroid use, maybe, but not exactly telling the truth, either.

So-called amateurs are also getting a lot of the action. Think of the medal-winning Olympic athletes who supposedly represent the best our country has to offer attempting to peddle breakfast food and other merchandise. Or the major college coaches who, in addition to their annual six-figure salaries, get hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse products and outfit their players with particular brands of footgear.

Yet the money-grubbers are rarely reproached. On the contrary. They become more celebrated, honored rather than condemned for their enterprise. And the more celebrated they become, the more commercial opportunities they are offered and the richer they become at the expense of those who celebrate them. O.J. Simpson, for instance, was widely admired before his murder trial at least as much for his car rental commercials as for his football exploits.

Sadly, those who have been bemoaning the poor example steroid users may have set for youngsters apparently don't see anything wrong in what else young people may be learning from those who are so eager to exploit them.

Copyright 2005 Dick Meister