Memorial Day primarily gives us an annual occasion to remember the critically important contributions of those who served in the military. But it’s also a good day to generally recall the past, and 86-year-old former NFL player Sherman Howard has shared with the Chicago Tribune recollections of a day when football players weren’t so focused on money.
“They are not receptive to the older fellows,” Howard said of today’s players. “They think finances is the main thing. The first thing they say is: ‘How much did you make?’ Well, that’s not the point.”
Howard, one of the first African-American pro football players, said that, when he and his peers had an opportunity to meet well-known athletes of the past, they sought their advice on matters other than their income. “I don’t think we ever asked Paul Robeson how much he made; we didn’t ask Jesse Owens how much he made,” Howard said.
That said, in the days when Howard played (1949 through 1953, with the New York Yanks and the Cleveland Browns), the league was a much smaller business, with much lower exposure. (Especially since there we few if any televisions.) Everyone was making far less money, in real dollars and in comparison to the rest of the workforce.
Today’s athletes are a direct product of the fame and financial success that comes from playing at the highest levels of a given sport. Today’s owners also benefit greatly from the rise of the game.
Maybe that’s the real lesson to be learned from Sherman Howard. The dramatic increase in the profile and profitability of pro football hardly is guaranteed. If today’s stewards of the game screw around with the sport enough, they’ll all return to the days when money wasn’t the main attraction.