- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

With employees being laid off all over the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell - ever the politician’s son - took the unheard-of step of reducing his salary last year by 20 percent. His pay will remain at that level at least through 2009, the league announced Wednesday, and his lieutenants won’t be getting any raises, either.

Wonder how Jim Calhoun feels about that.

Calhoun is the eminently successful Connecticut basketball coach who made a YouTube spectacle of himself the other day when someone asked him about the $1.6 million-plus he makes, tops among state workers. In a nutshell, Calhoun said he didn’t plan on issuing any refunds, even though the state has a budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion, because - deficit be damned - “we bring in $12 million to the university.” At one point, he eloquently told the fellow who posed the question, a pesky political activist, to “shut up.”

Clearly, these trying economic times are bringing out the best and worst in people. Granted, Goodell, who still took home almost $9 million in ‘08, hasn’t had to move his family into a studio apartment, but it’s good to know that one of our sports leaders grasps the current zeitgeist. Fans, after all, are having their lives scaled down, their dreams rolled back; why shouldn’t sports go through a similar retrenchment?

Now is not the time for an athlete to be flashing his bling, to be posing for pictures with his 17 cars, to be feeling “disrespected” by the team paying him $20 million a year. Now is the time for him to lay low and count his blessings - especially guaranteed contracts. In just about any other occupation, work forces are being reduced, but last I looked, rosters were still at 25 for baseball, 53 for football, 15 for basketball and 23 for hockey.

Not that teams aren’t feeling the pinch. In many places, ticket prices are being frozen, even reduced. In the NBA, according to SportsBusiness Journal, half the clubs plan to take out the sports equivalent of a home equity loan this week - that is, avail themselves of a leaguewide credit line to cover operating losses. Then there’s golf, which is losing tournament sponsors (FBR, US Bank, Ginn Resorts) and looks like it might lose another depending on how the suspected scam involving financier Robert Allen Stanford plays out.

In the Fantasyland of sports - a business in which the arrow has always pointed up, up, up - these are unnerving developments. Except for the years during World War II, when leagues struggled just to stay afloat, our games haven’t endured anything remotely like the current downturn. If the economy doesn’t bounce back soon, teams might start selling tickets for Whatever The Market Will Bear. That’s right, folks, name your price on Priceline.com.

So far, players and coaches - secure in their multiyear deals - have been insulated somewhat from the pain of the masses. Nobody, for instance, has foreclosed on Shaquille O’Neal’s guest house. And unlike Sarah Palin, Phil Mickelson hasn’t been moved to sell his plane. You’ll also be pleased to hear that none of Melvin Mora’s quintuplets has had to go out and get a job.

But we’re seeing the beginnings of a trickle-down effect. Two of the first few drops landed on the caps of Yankees players Johnny Damon and Xavier Nady, both of whom got caught up in the Stanford mess and had most of their assets frozen by the government. Not to worry, though. Damon and Nady will earn almost $20 million between them this season, so they’ll soon have plenty of walking-around money.

Outside of New York, though, baseball’s free agents are finding megadollar contracts harder to come by than a Prince Fielder leg hit. Adam Dunn, the perennial 40-homer man, just settled for a mere two years and $20 million from the Nationals, and Manny Ramirez is still unsigned (and apparently unaware it’s no longer 2007).

Meanwhile, on the same day the NFL, the most profitable league in sports history, revealed that its commissioner had lowered his salary, Greg Norman recommended that the PGA Tour take a similar approach to purses “just out of respect to every citizen and taxpayer over there who’s suffering dramatically. It seems… the players are still [acting]… like they’re recession-proof.”

But they’re not, of course. No one is. For golf and every other sport, the helium, you might say, has gone out of the MetLife blimp.

Though it looks like there’s still a little left in Jim Calhoun. Anybody got a pin?