For anyone who grew up in the 1990s, the idea that Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner and Oakland A’s first-round draft pick who announced Monday that he would declare himself eligible for the NFL draft, should have to choose one sport or another to dedicate his life to strikes one as fundamentally anti-joy. The ’90s were the heyday of two-sport stars, from Deion Sanders to Brian Jordan to Kenny Lofton to, of course, Bo Jackson, a man so athletically gifted that an entire Nike campaign revolved solely around his ability to dominate whatever sport he wanted to.
It was almost as if we wouldn’t accept Michael Jordan as the dominant athlete he was until we saw him trying on a baseball uniform.
There was something magical back then about someone like Bo, or Deion, or John Elway before them, or even Jim Thorpe, a player so purely blessed by the gods with otherworldly talent — talent being a primary reason we watch sports, after all — that he could lord his skill over all in whatever pursuit he chose. Surely, it was more viscerally thrilling than today’s era of specialization, where a 12-year-old can be plucked from his home, fed to some specific training facility in Florida, and emerge as a fully formed, perfectly honed specialist, his body sculpted and toned for the one purpose of whatever sport has been chosen for him. (At the expense, often, of any sort of socialization or exposure to anything else in the world.) As anyone who has spent any time around youth sports can tell you, the American sports world of today cannot accommodate such versatility: We demand that 7-year-olds pick their lane, let alone Heisman Trophy winners.
Which is why, from the beginning, the expectation has been that Murray would have to choose, and it is worth noting that just because Murray has put his name in the NFL draft does not mean he has currently chosen; he has roughly four weeks, during the crossover of the NFL draft combine and spring training for the A’s, to come to a final decision. And it is telling, in our wonkish, data-driven, brand-called-me world, that the decision is framed in entirely business terms. The one piece of information that no one has about Murray’s ultimate decision is which sport, you know, he likes more, and it’s not considered particularly relevant. As baseball writer Joe Sheehan put it in his weekly newsletter, “Murray will never be in a better position to turn his considerable athletic talent into money.” I understand that Murray has to make the best business decision for his life and career, but forgive me for lamenting a bit of lost romance in the zero-sum game this has become. (Of course, it’s also worth noting that sports were not so innocent in the ’90s either. Elway only threatened to play baseball because he wanted to force the Colts, who had drafted him, to trade him to the Broncos; Jackson agreed to play for the Royals because he refused to report to the woeful Tampa Buccaneers.)
Perhaps inevitably, Murray’s decision, whenever he makes it, will play like a referendum on the sports and professional leagues of baseball and football themselves. The thinking goes that baseball needs Murray to choose it because of the league’s issues with African-American participation and because Murray, perhaps immediately, would become one of the ten most recognizable faces in the sport (and that probably includes Tim Tebow); football needs Murray to choose it so it can show that, despite the alarming increase in CTE diagnoses and the league’s reputation for treating its players as a series of interchangeable body parts, it’s still irresistible for anyone who wants to be at the center of the American conversation. (The NFL can’t start losing players to old man baseball.) The leagues (obviously) will both be just fine, but considering how much each has been criticized over the years for how little it has to offer the individual — the NFL has had countless labor wars over its treatment of players, and MLB, considering the current frozen free-agent market, may be on the verge of one — having one of the most well-known athletes in the country choose their sport will be, at the very least, worthy of a little social-media celebration dance.
Which begs the question: If we accept that the world will no longer allow for multiple-sport stars, what sport should a burgeoning superstar choose? I’m not just talking about Murray, who has his own particular strengths and skills and suitabilities. Let’s create a mythical, hypothetical 18-year-old wunderkind, who is like Bo Jackson but better at everything (yikes, did you ever look at Bo’s K/BB ratio?), and theoretically able to dominate at whatever sport he (or she, one supposes) desires. Let’s call him Will Leitch, because even 43-year-old sportswriters can live out youthful athletic fantasies every once in a while, okay?
So: What team sport should young Will play, using the apparently universally accepted do-what’s-good-for-your-bottom-line metric? I add the “team” there because, long term, I don’t think golf, tennis, or NASCAR is the right choice for Will here. The best golfer in the world, Justin Thomas, earned $8.7 million in 2018, which is a hefty sum that would nonetheless make him the 148th best-paid NBA player, the 129th best-paid MLB player, and the 149th best-paid NFL player. Even allotting for however much Callaway might be paying you to use their clubs, that’s pretty low for the best player in the world. (For comparison, the 149th-best golfer made $569,391 last year.) Tennis pays a little more — Novak Djokovic made $15.9 million in 2018 for winning two Majors, and four tournaments total, which wouldn’t put him in baseball’s top 50 — but, again, requires being the absolute best to reach even that rarified air.
So, if 18-year-old Will wants to maximize his earning potential and make sure he has the highest possible quality of life, he seems to have four options: baseball, football, basketball, or soccer.
The baseball versus football question is a tough one, for Murray and for Will. On one hand, the NFL famously doesn’t have guaranteed contracts; even if you’ve signed for six years, if you blow out your knee tomorrow, the team can cut you and not pay you a dime. Baseball works differently, which means that Murray, for example, has already banked around 40 percent of a $4.6 million signing bonus for the A’s, and as long as he eventually does play baseball, he’ll get the whole thing. The problem, of course, as Sheehan points out, “that’s the last baseball money he’s going to see for a long, long time.” Murray will have to play in the minors for several years — at a salary below minimum wage, thanks to Congress — before he even makes the MLB minimum of $535,000. After that, he’ll have to go through arbitration every year, each time earning well below a “market” rate, until he’s finally on the open market in 2025 … and that’s if everything goes perfect and he stays healthy and develops as expected. (And we’ve seen in the last two winters how unperfect MLB free agency is, even when healthy and monstrously well-developed talent is available.) The NFL does give its first-round draftees more money than baseball does; to quote Sheehan again, “Murray can make more money just by being drafted by an NFL team than he can by playing baseball for the next seven or eight years.” This is widely considered the reason Murray is keeping his options open: He wants the A’s to give him more money up-front (reportedly $15 million) to make it worth his while to stay. Of course, he might also get a brain injury before those seven or eight years are over, and baseball players’ careers last far longer than only the greatest NFL careers. It’s basic risk-reward: Is Murray willing to sacrifice long-term security for more guaranteed short-term gain? (Also: How much does he like being yelled at on television? Stephen A. Smith will lambaste him much less if he plays baseball. Worth considering.)
Young Will Leitch, though, has two other options. If he’s, say, chosen first overall in the NBA draft, like the Phoenix Suns’ Deandre Ayton last April, he’s looking at a guaranteed $18,107,160 over his first two seasons, with the possibility of $41,242,888 over the four years of his rookie contract. Even if he’s the final pick of the first round, like Atlanta’s Omari Spellman, he’s booked for $3,593,640 over the first two years, which isn’t far from what Murray signed with Oakland for. And at the top end, NBA players are extremely well-compensated: Stephen Curry has made $37.5 million a year each of the last two years. But the NBA still has a math problem: The fewest number of roster spots, 15 per team, than any other sport, along with a development league that pays about $35,000 a year, which is only a little bit more than MLB’s minor leaguers make. European leagues are there as a backup — some Euro and Russian teams pay six or even low-seven figures — but those have a shelf life too; they don’t have many more roster spots there. And no league has more of an issue with salary disparity between superstars and rank and file than the NBA does; under union chief Michele Roberts, this is, in large part, official policy.
But I think I know what 18-year-old Will Leitch should do: If he has soccer mastered, he should play that. Last month, the rights to Christian Pulisic — last seen desperately trying (and failing) to will older, lesser American soccer players to the World Cup — were bought by English Premier League team Chelsea from German Bundesliga team Borussia Dortmund for a $77 million transfer fee, the most ever paid for an American player and a sign that Chelsea considers him a future star. And stars, in soccer, make a shocking amount of money thanks to a sport that, because there are so many international leagues with so much competition, has no real salary cap. Last year Lionel Messi made more than $100 million in salary, and that’s not even counting endorsements. Pulisic, or young Leitch, will have the freedom to play in any soccer league in the world, and he will be able to make tens of millions of dollars when he’s a teenager and as he matures and improves as a player. There is no artificial league cap (except in the MLS), no one-league-or-nothing constraint, and, oh yes, he plays the most popular sport in the world, and he can play it anywhere. And he can do it well into his 30s, even his 40s. And he’s unlikely to suffer any serious head injuries, or get screamed about on First Take. He’ll have the best of every possible world. That’s where American sports leagues are at this particular point in history. All things being equal: Your kid should just play soccer.