As Lionel Messi Shows, The Weight of Philanthropy Has Fallen On Athletes. But Where Are Team Owners? Ya Know, The Ones With The Real Money

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Lionel Messi is taking a 70 percent pay cut to help keep team employees paid through the pandemic.
Lionel Messi is taking a 70 percent pay cut to help keep team employees paid through the pandemic.
Photo: Getty

Here’s a dirty little secret:

Sports owners, or governors as they’re referred to in the NBA, don’t make the bulk of their money from sports. For instance, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank co-founded Home Depot, and Cleveland Cavaliers governor Dan Gilbert is the man behind Quicken Loans.

Franchise revenue is their “play money” because their “real money” comes from other places. It’s the reason so few owners are household names. The famous ones are famous because they want to be, or because they really care about their teams.

Dallas Mavericks governor Mark Cuban, who made his billions developing and selling to Yahoo, really cares about the NBA, which is why it was no surprise that he was the first to start putting a plan in place to pay hourly workers as soon as the NBA announced that the league was being suspended.


“I reached out to the folks at the arena and our folks at the Mavs to find out what it would cost to support, financially support, people who aren’t going to be able to come to work,” said Cuban.

And since then, he’s implored his fellow CEOs to think of their employees before their shareholders.


“The reality is by doing the right thing with your employees, you do more to help stabilize the economy. And from there, we have a better chance of getting back to business as usual,” he explained.

We need more Mark Cubans in times like this because if you haven’t been paying attention, the players have been the ones opening their wallets while the owners have been twiddling their thumbs in the background.


Clippers governor Steve Ballmer gave $10 million to the University of Washington Medicine’s emergency response fund, and has pledged more than $25 million to organizations that are combating the virus.

His colleagues aren’t following suit.

Monday morning, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi announced that he and his teammates would “happily” take a 70% pay cut due to the coronavirus, along with making additional contributions to make sure non-sporting staff members salaries aren’t decreased.


In the NFL, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees recently announced that he was donating $5 million to the state of Louisiana to help provide up to 10,000 meals per day.

Numerous players in the NBA, such as Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Zion Williamson, immediately stepped up by reaching into their wallets. And while many NBA franchises have followed the players’ philanthropic lead, it feels like they had to be shamed into it.


For instance, it took bullying from people on social media to get the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils to backtrack on their plan to reduce the salaries of some of their employees by 20 percent.

It’s as if the owners are OK with being late to the donation party when they should have been first in line. Because it makes no sense that a 19-year-old such as Williamson, whose living on a rookie salary and endorsements, has to step up to fill a void because the owner of his team won’t.


In the words of my father, “how much money do the owners actually have if they can pay the high salaries of all these athletes?”

Well, the answer to that question is enough money to not reduce their staff’s salaries and not sit idly by watching their players write checks that they could surpass without making a dent in their financials.


Mind you, NFL owners just pushed players into signing a new 10-year CBA that will come into play before the league renews their TV deals, which will give the owners a bigger raise than the players.

It’s like going to dinner and the “brokest” people at the table keep picking up the tab. Yes, they have it, but should they have to be the ones stepping up?


Messi led the Forbes list in 2019 for being the world’s richest athlete as he raked in $127 million last year. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russel Wilson led the way for American athletes as he came in at sixth, with $89.5 million. A few weeks ago he donated a million dollars’ worth of meals in Seattle.

Messi, Wilson, and the Cristiano Ronaldos of the world can take pay cuts and donate money without losing sleep at night. But the majority of athletes aren’t getting paid like that. There’s a reason most in the NHL have been quiet.


Hockey money doesn’t hit like that.

Players, not owners, are the faces of franchises. Well, except for Jerry Jones and the Cowboys. But with that, comes a heavier responsibility in times like this as the athletes have a relationship with the public that owners do not. There’s a personal connection when you see someone in the stands wearing your jersey, it tends to heighten the motivation to want to help them.


But far too often, due to socioeconomics, the players who feel that weight are also the ones that came from humble beginnings. It’s a good problem to have when you’re expected to take care of your family while also being philanthropic, but it’s still a problem.

I’ve always been of the notion that people have the right to spend their money the way they want. But when economic crises arise, folks also have the right to look at you sideways for not doing your share.