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Where There's a Pay Ceiling, There's a Floor

CAPPING salaries in sports is a little like the old communist dictum ``From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.''

Up to a point.

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Within the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association, member teams have agreed to put most of their revenue into a common pot, from which it is disbursed equally among the teams. A ceiling is put on the biggest cost: salaries.

In football, the upper limit for each team is $34.6 million this year (64 percent of revenues). All teams must devote at least half their revenue to player salaries.

When the money is doled out to players, the communist analogy is turned on its head: Now it's ``to each according to his ability.''

Since star players are the big draw at the box office, they get the most money, but there is also a floor: Football rookies must be paid at least $108,000; basketball players at least $150,000.

In baseball, where owners are proposing pay caps to contain salary inflation, some teams are creating their own caps. The Seattle Mariners set a budget of $29 million this spring. Two-thirds of that money went to signing just five of their 27 players. Many teams spend more like $40 million on salaries.

Football players approved salary caps in 1993 in exchange for letting veteran players become free agents. ``It's not the ideal system,'' says NFL Players Association spokesman Carl Francis. ``We had no choice,'' he says, noting that the issue was under litigation and a judge was pressing to reach an agreement.

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