December 15, 2008

It's Giveback Time

Pros should step up and help out the PGA Tour's charities

In tough times, sports can be a welcome relief from the worries of the world. It's where we go to lose our troubles in the admiration we have for the skills of professional athletes. Now, more than ever, with economic uncertainty the only constant, that diversion is as comforting as a hug from a loved one.

Weeks after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, a damaged but defiant New York roared in full-throated passion as the New York Yankees rallied mere miles from the site of the World Trade Center for improbable comeback victories on consecutive nights in the 2001 World Series. The city needed those games; in many ways, the country needed them, too.

This enemy is just as menacing, measured by the red ink on Wall Street, the whiteout of foreclosures and the blue bruises of layoffs. The beast makes the dollar gap between those who play games for a living and those who have watched their living disappear more apparent, and more offensive.

Days after the Labor Department said 533,000 Americans lost their jobs last month, those same Yankees signed pitcher CC Sabathia for $161 million over seven years—an average of $23 million a year. The juxtaposition of the twin news makes the dollar figure more infuriating than inspiring.

Around that same time, the hugely successful National Football League said it was laying off 10 to 15 percent of its staff and freezing salaries of the rest. If the NFL Players Association or any players stepped forward to volunteer a pay freeze, I missed the announcement.

In this muddle of numbers—unemployment figures mocked by player salaries—there is an opportunity for PGA Tour players to once again display what makes their sport special. The only game where players routinely call penalties on themselves has a chance to be the only sport that gives back money in 2009.

Here is the suggestion: Next season, every player who makes a cut in a PGA Tour event donates 2 percent of his winnings to the benefiting charity of the tournament. If anyone will feel the crunch of a drop-off in corporate hospitality and pro-am participation next year, it will be the charities who have received more than $1.2 billion from the tour over the years.

Take the Buick Invitational, for example. Is there a title sponsor more distressed right now? Or one that's been more loyal to the tour over the years? With a purse of $5.2 million, a 2-percent giveback from the players would yield $104,000. The winner's check of $936,000 would be reduced by $18,720.

Why is this fair? The median household income in non-adjusted dollars for an American family in 1987 was $26,061, according to the Census Bureau. In 2007 it was $50,233. That's an increase of 92.7 percent over 20 years. The PGA Tour purse in 1987 was $32.1 million. In 2007 it was $270 million. That's an increase of 741 percent.

Don't hold your breath waiting for the players from the team sports to take a voluntary salary cut—or an involuntary one for that matter. But if one PGA Tour player steps forward, others will follow.

This 2-percent giveback would be the most important penalty a golfer could ever call on himself. It would do more than protect the field—it would protect the communities that support the field. Let's do it, guys.