$125 a point

November 12 marks the rather shabby beginnings of paid football in the United States when Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger got a secret $500 “Game performance bonus” to take the field for the Alleghany Athletic Association. Roughly $13,200 in today’s money, it wouldn’t buy you a single play from today’s incredibly overpaid athletes.

Yes, overpaid. Remember the Hank Williams Jr. complaint from the 1970s that "the pitcher got a million dollars and the quarterback he got two”? Well, Colin Kaepernick, the guy who won’t kneel for the national anthem because America treats people like him so badly, signed a 6-year, $114 million dollar contract with the San Francisco 49ers. The details are complicated but essentially it’s $19 million a year or over $1 million per game.

Now there are on average around 160 plays per game. (I checked.) Taking out things like kickoffs, there are about 134 that involve a quarterback. But as two teams are playing, all things being equal, each QB will take 67 snaps. So Kaepernick gets paid very nearly $15,000 per snap.

OK, obviously he and all the others are paid for their time in practice and for the scarcity value of their talents if not their attitudes. But the same is true of Heffelfinger, who got a “bonus” for showing up and playing because he practised and was good. (In fact in the game in question, whose final score was 4-0, he scored the only touchdown on a recovered fumble; touchdowns were worth less in those days although dollars were worth more.)

The story is, as I said, a bit shabby. For one thing, Heffelfinger, who’d been an all-American guard at Yale, was paid “double expenses” during his earlier stint with the Chicago Athletic Association. And if you don’t think that’s pay, try telling your boss it’s OK to submit each receipt twice and see what happens. For another, the $500 arrangement was kept secret until it was unearthed in the 1960s so they were ashamed to be seen doing it but not ashamed to be doing it which is a rather characteristically human but not a dignified pose. (Incidentally the AAA paid another guy $250 to play along with Pudge the next week, against Washington & Jefferson College, but the team lost 8-0.)

It’s hard to believe there was a time when people played sports for the love of the game. And I don’t suggest that those who sacrifice time and effort to excel in this or in any other field should not be rewarded. Moreover, as sports careers tend to be short even without sudden serious injury they need to be paid over a decade the sum a normal person would earn over four or five. And yes, sports are popular. But modern sports are also lurid.

There are examples of sportsmanship and humility, to be sure. And not all of them are scripted by the team’s well-paid PR consultants. But frankly I feel that if these athletes were forced to scrape by on a million bucks a year they might actually show more appreciation and more of the old amateur spirit of good clean fun. Minus the bit about cash payments under the table, I mean.