Column: NFL players must go to wall for guaranteed contracts
There should be one word on the minds of every NFL player and the union that represents them.
It’s way past time for those who play America’s most popular — and physically demanding — sport to be paid what they’re worth. The most obvious starting point would be to ensure their contracts work like pretty much every other professional league on the planet.
The NFL’s standard practice of only guaranteeing part of a contract, even for the biggest stars, seems grossly inadequate when one considers that players have a shorter shelf life than any other sport and often face a lifetime of debilitating health problems because of the sheer brutality they put their bodies through.
A first-of-its-kind analysis from The Associated Press only strengthens the argument that players are getting a raw deal. Since 2005, the AP found, the average amount of playing experience for athletes on the NFL’s opening-day rosters has shrunk from 4.6 to 4.3 years.
Essentially, a 53-man roster is comprised of a few star millionaires — most notably, the quarterback — and a bevy of young players earning close to the minimum salary. Older players, especially those at positions considered more easily replaced, are being forced out of the game or left with take-it-or-leave-it contracts that are great for teams but do little to ensure an athlete’s long-term financial health.
Just look what happened to Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.
Heading into the final year of his contract, Thomas held out through the preseason in hopes of landing a new long-term contract, one with plenty of up-front money that he could put in the bank before he stepped on the field again. Essentially, he wanted an insurance policy in case of serious injury. Holding out was the only way to get it under the league’s current structure.
The Seahawks refused to budge for the ninth-year player, insisting that Thomas — a six-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl champion and last remaining member of the “Legion of Boom” that will go down as one of the greatest defenses in NFL history — fulfill his expiring deal. And what happened? In the fourth game of the season, Thomas went down with a broken leg.
As he was carted off their field, Thomas flashed an obscene gesture toward his own bench. He might as well have made it to the entire league and the union that represents him.
In all likelihood, Thomas’ last chance to earn another big payday has gone up in smoke.
Thomas could have stuck to his demands, like Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. Problem is, that would have meant sitting out the entire season — a huge sacrifice in a sport that already is a short-term career for most.
Coming off two straight 1,200-yard rushing seasons, Bell had every right to demand a long-term deal that would ease the financial pain of a serious injury. Considering what happened to Thomas, the sixth-year running back probably made the right move by sitting out when the Steelers wouldn’t meet his demands. But he’s now lost a year in the prime of his career, and it’s likely that he’ll have to take less money on the open market after a season on the sideline.
Amazingly enough, NFL Players Association President Eric Winston says guaranteed contracts aren’t a panacea when it comes to ensuring players getting a bigger piece of the league’s windfall.
“We can’t forget the cause and effect to all this,” he said. “The more guaranteed money you get, maybe the shorter your contract should be. We live in this world where we think, ‘If we had guaranteed contracts, I’d get six years and $120 million guaranteed.’ No. It would probably be three and 60. It’s just one of those things where I think there’s a give and a take.”
The problem is, the NFL owners have been taking for far too long — and the players, through a union that is almost certainly the weakest of all the major sports, has been more than willing to give.
The NFLPA has often appeared to be little more than a subsidiary of the league, repeating many of the league’s talking points and not bothering to put up much of a fight whenever it was time to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.
Over a two-decade period beginning in 1968, there were five strikes or lockouts as the players tried to flex their collective muscle. But the last of those, in 1987, was a devastating defeat for the union. Some players refused to take part in the strike or quickly broke ranks. The owners assembled teams of replacement players to keep the games going for three weeks. The walkout lasted a mere 24 days.
Since then, there’s been only one NFL lockout, which occurred largely during the 2011 offseason. The dispute was settled without any regular-season games being missed.
While no one wants to see games lost, it’s rather amazing that the owners have been able to largely maintain labor peace for more than three decades, all while bolstering their own wealth enormously through new stadium deals and continually rising franchise values — and still getting the players to work for non-guaranteed contracts and burying for years the enormous health problems caused by head injuries.
The players must stand up for themselves when the current labor agreement expires after the 2020 season. That means putting aside a nice little nest egg each month to prepare for the very real likelihood that the owners won’t be very amenable to their demands. They’ll likely have to go on strike, perhaps for a very long time, but they shouldn’t budge on two key issues: guaranteed contracts and a bigger piece of the pie.
There are other issues worth talking about, of course. Player safety. Long-term health care. Some additional tweaking to the contract structure (perhaps something more in line with the NBA, which puts restrictions on what the top players can make but creates more opportunities for players in the middle of the pack). Limits on Commissioner Roger Goodell’s broad disciplinary powers. The right to peacefully protest (and some sort of settlement and compensation for the blatant blackballing of Colin Kaepernick).
Winston said creating a quicker route to free agency is best way to improve the players’ lot.
“What’s the union’s role in that?” he asked. “How do we help players overcome certain barriers to get to free agency as quickly as possible? We want it coming out of college. Owners want it never. Where does that bargain begin?”
Indeed, it’s going to be a tough road. But the players need to make one thing clear: If the owners won’t agree to some very reasonable demands, they won’t have anyone to play the games.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells and AP Data Journalist Larry Fenn contributed to this report.