What's the proper and fitting way to treat a key role player when he's dumped by the organization? If you happen to be Latrell Sprewell, most recently of the Golden State Warriors, the punishment is the cancellation of your contract and exile to what is the equivalent of basketball Siberia. If you happen to be Gil Amelio, most recently the chief executive of Apple Computer, you walk away with a severance compensation package that incredibly enough, tops $9 million.
The circumstances of these two men are different in that unlike Sprewell, Amelio -- an amiable enough person -- never physically hurt anyone, at least not in person. Sprewell, arguably the most important ballplayer on an otherwise forgettable team, was fired by the Warriors after the star guard used his coach's throat as a squeeze box. The National Basketball Association followed up by imposing a one-year ban on him, a decision that Sprewell's legal advisors plan to challenge.
And -- dare I say aloud what all too many people are whispering -- Sprewell is young and black while Amelio, a traveled veteran of the Silicon Valley circuit, is white. In the spirit of holiday cheer and good will toward men -- I suppose the politically correct description would be 'persons?'-- my better angels counsel me to pipe down and walk away from a 'media event' that's doomed to become yet another chapter in America's ongoing passion play of race.
Still, I must confess astonishment at how otherwise sane people now call for Sprewell's head, but utter nary a word of outrage at Amelio, who walks off with one oinker of a payoff despite one of the most monumental screw-ups of all time at Apple.
Amelio's the first to tell you that he deserved handsome compensation after losing his job last summer. After all, he was the head of a major corporation and if you want to attract top talent, that's the going rate these days -- take it or leave it. So, when Amelio signed his five-year employment contract in February 1996, Apple agreed to a pay a lump sum equal to his base salary (just under $1 million a year) as well as an annual $1 million target bonus should his employment be cut short. (Amelio also got Apple to pay $14,000 a month for a private plane.)
I'd be less of a Grinch if Amelio actually left Apple in better shape than when he inherited the job. Oh yes, since Amelio's departure, he's been using every available public forum to tell the world what a swell job he did. That's why Apple's in such grand shape, right?
Did individuals get hurt during Amelio's tenure? You better believe it. While Amelio was larding his already bulging bank account, Apple was firing tens of thousands of employees in what management said was an unavoidable move to align expenses with shrinking sales.
As for the millions of Apple shareholders who lost their shirts investing in the company's stock -- well, they wound up taking it in the shorts while the CEO waltzed off into the sunset with a sweetheart deal.
I have no truck with people who use violence to settle their issues with other people. Perhaps Sprewell had a legitimate beef and perhaps the league acted precipitately. But he messed up -- badly -- and now he's paying the price. Not so with Gil Amelio, however, who proves once again that when you're a big corporate mess-up, the powers-that-be pay you the price.