When money is no object, leagues have to find penalties that pay

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

Imagine being fined $5,000 or $10,000 for misbehaving at work.

That's a huge chunk of change for most people, enough to wipe out a bank account or at least put a sizable dent in it. And shelling out that kind of cash would certainly make someone think twice about acting up in the future.

But what about professional athletes, many of whom have multimillion-dollar contracts that pay more in a year or two than most people make in a lifetime. Is $10,000 enough to show them the error of their ways?

It wasn't for Randy Moss, who shrugged off the $10,000 fine the NFL slapped on him earlier this month for pretending to moon the Green Bay crowd by saying, ''Ain't nothing but 10 grand. What's 10 grand to me?''

What about $50,000 then? Or have salaries gotten so big that financial slaps on the wrist are mere annoyances? Does it take a suspension — keeping a player out of the game — to get attention these days?

''It depends on who the fine is levied against and what they did,'' Mark Cuban, fined more than $1 million by the NBA since buying the Dallas Mavericks in January 2000, said in an e-mail.

''Getting fined for pulling out a pen, or fake mooning is only going to bring more visibility and marketability to the person who did it,'' Cuban wrote. ''Players know it and that's why they do it. Dennis Rodman was the expert at it. It's not about whether the fine will have a negative financial impact, it's about whether the fine can have a positive impact.''

Disciplinary measures differ from sport to sport, but minor or first-time offenses almost always merit a fine. The dollar amounts vary depending upon the severity of the infraction as well as an athlete's history.

Moss, for example, was fined double the usual penalty for a gesture in poor taste because he'd been previously punished for unsportsmanlike conduct. But the league doesn't consider his offense in the same category as Jacksonville safety Donovin Darius' clothesline hit that left Green Bay receiver Robert Ferguson temporarily paralyzed. Darius was docked $75,000.

Both fines are huge, but consider that Moss earned $5.75 million this year. Darius made $4.1 million.

Besides, do the math: For someone making $50,000, Moss' fine was equivalent to $86.96.

''They make so much money today they can, financially, write any check,'' said Shawn O'Rourke, an associate dean at Canisius College whose specialty is sports ethics. ''They're not accountable.''

Fines don't always stand, either, often reduced upon appeal.

Pedro Martinez was fined $50,000 for throwing a pitch over Karim Garcia's head and tossing down Don Zimmer in the 2003 AL championship series. Martinez contested the fine, and it was cut by about $10,000.

The leagues and players' associations insist their penalties have an impact. Players may be making big money, but a four- or five-figure fine is still a hefty sum, said Carl Francis, spokesman for the NFL Players Association.

''Any time a player loses money, whether it's a fine or a suspension, it affects his bottom line,'' Francis said. ''So yes, money is a major, major, major deterrent.''

Leagues donate the money from the fines to charity.

If leagues really want to get serious, they hand down suspensions — the adult version of a grounding and a loss of allowance all in one.

When Miami Dolphins receiver David Boston was suspended for four games for testing positive for steroids, it cost him a quarter of his salary — $1.34 million. Ron Artest lost about $5 million by being suspended for the rest of the season after brawling with Detroit fans, one of the ugliest fights in U.S. sports history.

Baseball players get paid if they're suspended for an on-field infraction, but they still have to pay a fine. Suspensions under the newly toughened steroids rules will be without pay.

''If anybody who basically grew up like we have and was able to work their butt off to get to the NBA, and to lose money and not be able to play and do the things you love?'' said Stephen Jackson, who was suspended for 30 games for his role in the Nov. 19 brawl. ''Guys like me and Ron, we look at basketball like it's our life.''

Players aren't the only ones who feel the pain. Take an elite player off the court or field, and his entire team suffers. With Artest out for the year and Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal suspended for a combined 45 games, the Pacers went from NBA title contender to the playoff bubble. A loss in Boston on Wednesday night dropped them to .500.

When Sammy Sosa served his seven-game suspension for using a corked bat in June 2003, the Chicago Cubs went 3-4. Not horrendous, but the Cubs would have taken an extra victory or two instead of going down to the final weekend to clinch the NL Central.

''The players that I represented were more concerned about missing time in games,'' said Dennis Gilbert, a former agent who is now an executive with the Chicago White Sox. ''If you take an impact player that gets suspended, not only does it hurt him, it hurts the team. It could end up costing the division title.

''So people who look at it and say, 'Well, I don't care about the money,' are really shortsighted.''

It's a fine line to tread. No league or team wants to be an outlaw operation, and players don't want to be seen as problem children. But they still have a product to sell. Nobody wants a star player out of the game for too long, and outrageous antics get people talking.

Moss' jersey is still one of the top sellers in the league. Fans watch to see Terrell Owens' latest end-zone stunt. Rodman was adored by fans when he was in Chicago.

''Sports are entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less,'' Cuban wrote. ''The leagues know it, but they also realize that they must define their control. The simplest and most fundamental way to do that is through fines.''

And, the flip comments by Moss and a few other players aside, it works, NBA vice president Stu Jackson said.

''In my experience, most players do not want to write a check for any amount of money,'' he said. ''Otherwise, I think you'd see more rampant behavior.''

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