No guarantee: The NFL’s fatal flaw

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Imagine a world where Warriors guard Klay Thompson refused to show up to the start of training camp because he wanted a few extra million. Imagine a spring training in which Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox stayed home in hopes of receiving a raise for the upcoming year.

Weird, right?

Well, not so weird if you follow the NFL. Player “holdouts” (where a player refuses to participate in team activities until contract disputes are resolved) are about as common to the professional football offseason as OTAs or free agent speculation. They are no longer rare events but an annual occurrence. Just this past offseason, stars such as Le’Veon Bell and Khalil Mack engaged in holdouts, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be more in the future.

When work stoppages become standard business operations, it’s clear that the NFL has serious flaws in its labor structure.

They can all be traced to the lack of guaranteed contracts.

Unlike the NBA, NHL or MLB, where contracts are fully guaranteed for the most part, the vast majority of player contracts in the NFL are only partially so or just flat-out not guaranteed. Hence, why players hold out for more money.

Stranger still when you account for the fact that the NFL is the most dangerous game out of the four major sports. A Harvard study found that “the mean number of injuries suffered per game in the NFL is approximately 4.9 times higher than the sum of those other leagues.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, the average NFL career is now less than three years. Given the violent nature of the sport and decreasing career spans, you’d think the NFL would be the one to secure contracts for its players, especially for a business that generated $8 billion this past year.

So why aren’t NFL contracts guaranteed like in other sports? Essentially because that’s the way business has always been done in professional football.

Weird, right?

Gary R. Roberts, president of Bradley University and part-time scholar of NFL player contract structure, told Deadspin that “back in the old days, owners could give guarantees; it’s just that they never did. Nobody else was doing it, so there was no leverage the players had to insist on guarantees.”

This cultural inertia worked its way into the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA, where members of management ensured more stipulations that allow them to avoid paying players, if they so choose, under a variety of guises. The salary cap has made owners ever more reluctant to guarantee contracts because of things such as “dead money,” where cash usually paid to a player in the form of a guarantee has to stay on the books for the life of a contract, even after a player is cut or traded.

Cultural norms and CBA structures have given upper management every incentive to not guarantee contracts, so it’s up to the NFL Players Association and agents to fight for it themselves. Sadly, they’re not the rebellious types.

Agents are more concerned with securing multiyear deals that are impressive on the surface to appeal to future clients. Meanwhile, players have been more concerned with more pressing matters such as securing pensions or workplace safety regulations.

The only real leverage players have is in free agency, where they can shop around for the best deal, but even then only elite players are capable of making guarantee demands. Oftentimes, teams can find players with similar skill sets to a free agent elsewhere on the market who are willing to sign without a guarantee, or they can draft a player at the same position on a cheaper rookie deal.

The elite players who can push the envelope on guarantees in free agency often choose instead to sign lucrative extensions while still under contract. Lured by the big money thrown at them by their current teams and the security it offers, most players choose to settle. In a sport where one hit can end a career, most players prefer to get their money “now” rather than risk entering free agency with an injury that sends their value down the toilet.

Look at the Aaron Rodgers contract extension that was completed this week.

Rodgers signed the largest deal in league history, but when looking at the specifics, only two of the six years he extended for are truly guaranteed. Now, of course the Packers will almost certainly not cut Rodgers in the future, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Contracts are really about the allocation of risk, and Rodgers carries all of it going into the later years of his contract as he begins to age.

Even the Kirk Cousins deal, in which he secured a fully guaranteed $84 million contract from Minnesota and was hailed as hero by some of his peers, is negated by the fact that it’s only three years — a typical number of guaranteed years for top players on extended deals. Radical change would entail fourth- or fifth-year guarantees.

This is a system in which players aren’t receiving the job security or money they really deserve.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee it will ever change.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].