Who’s worth more? A baseball player or the doctor keeping your wife or child alive?

I opened the papers this morning to read about the Seattle Mariners giving Robinson Cano a 10-year contract for $240 million. The New York Mets apparently have agreed to give Curtis Granderson $60 million over four years. And there was the Jacoby Ellsbury deal with the New York Yankees earlier in the week: 7 years, $153 million.

For these ballplayers who have combined talent and hard work to reach such stratospheric salaries, I say, “Well done.”

But whenever baseball or other sports go through the off-season ritual of courtship by checkbook, I try to get a bit of perspective on what our society is saying in the way we reward sports figures.

Is a first baseman — with an average annual salary of $5.4 millionten 100 times as valuable to society as a high school teacher  — with an average annual salary of $54,000 — inspiring your child?

Is a shortstop — with an average annual salary of $3 million — ten times as valuable to society as an oncologist — with an average annual salary of $278,000 — treating your wife or husband for cancer?

Questioning the relative value of sports heroes to those serving the public is hardly new. Babe Ruth is famously remembered for his answer when asked about wanting to get paid more than President Herbert Hoover: “I had a better year than he did.” I imagine that even way back in the Roman republic, some people pondered the public adulation heaped on gladiators against the physicians of the day.

I still remember a section of a college economics textbook that did an academic proof  that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was worth every penny the Los Angeles Lakers were paying him in the 1970s. Kareem brought people into the arena and had a huge influence on broadcast revenues, q.e.d.

Certainly, pro athletes enrich our lives as they provide marvelous entertainment. I’ve been thrilled to see Ozzie Smith acrobatically turn a double play from short and been crushed to see Billy Buckner watch a grounder go between his legs at first. There’s even value in sports in occasionally seeing the games as morality plays on good versus evil (Red Sox v. Yankees, or vice versa, depending on your accent).

Yet no matter how much I love the game and how much economic sense it makes to pay the players, I still value more the doctors and nurses and teachers and coaches who care for us.

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