The NFL's Rookie Mistakes

The salary structure is out of wack, but there's more than enough money!

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Sometimes reporters hype the most dramatic aspect of a story as a way of rooting for it to happen. Other times the press is just clueless. I can't figure out which scenario is more likely after taking in the coverage of the big news from the National Football League this week. The story is that the 32 NFL franchise owners voted unanimously to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement they had signed with the National Football League Players Association just two years ago. If a new agreement is not signed, then the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap, and a lockout looms for 2011.

It's certainly not hard to see a rooting interest for the most dramatic aspect of this story. If for instance, players went on strike, then you have the delicious visuals of multimillionaires arriving in their Mercedes SUVs to join a picket line. Athletes are terrible at playing the role of aggrieved laborers. During the NBA lockout of 1998, veteran guard Kenny Anderson whined to the New York Times that he might have to sell one of his eight luxury cars to get by. See, it's hard not to root for a situation when you get comments like that. Just imagine what a slightly half-cocked quote machine like Chad Johnson or Terrell Owens would say while marching on a picket line.

Of course, the football reporters may just be missing the point, a scenario I find somewhat likely. Sports reporters have rarely done a good job covering the business aspects of sports, and labor issues are no exception. It isn't that the reporters are dummies (or at least I don't think they are), but rather sports reporting relies on fitting stories into conventional paradigms; the hard-working underdog and the talented favorite being two of the favorite ones. Neither the conventional paradigms of sport nor the conventional paradigms of labor (poor workers versus rich management) fit into the circumstances of a sports labor issue. It's hard to take sides when the scene is a bunch of multimillionaires bickering over how best to divide more money than most of us would see in several lifetimes of work. It's hard to choose a rooting interest under those circumstances.

Nevertheless, it's still vital to understand the issues, and that's what has been missing from the coverage of the current labor situation. The NFL owners opted out with such vehemence because they would like to implement a rookie salary scale. This would return some semblance of logic to NFL payrolls. As noted in this space about a month ago, newly-drafted rookies today are receiving bigger contracts than even the most respected veterans.

At the time of the NFL draft, Miami Dolphin Offensive Tackle, Jake Long, the No. 1 overall selection in draft, got a 5-year-$57.5 contract with nearly half of it guaranteed, a pact that dwarfed the new deal [$37.5 million, with $20 million in guarantees over 5 years] given to Bob Ray Sanders, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

It's only gotten loonier since then. This week the Atlanta Falcons signed their first round draft pick, Quarterback Matt Ryan to a six-year $72 million deal with $34.75 million guaranteed. Not only is the third overall pick in the draft set to receive more money than the first pick, but Ryan, who has yet to show whether he's the next draft-day bust like Ryan Leaf or the next public face of the sport like Payton Manning, will be making much more money than Tom Brady, who has guided his team to three Super Bowl victories. It would be nice to know that Ryan can at least guide his team into field goal range before giving him that kind of money.

The owners think this situation is way out of hand, but—and here's why a lockout/strike is so unlikely—the Players Association agrees. NFLPA President Kevin Mawae told ESPN radio that the rookie contracts were a little disheartening. There is a model for what both sides aspire to -- in the NBA (it's rare that the NFL should look to the NBA for business advice, but this is one area in which the NBA figured it out a while ago).

The NBA has a rookie salary scale that is preset each year. The contract is based on where a player was selected in the first round of the draft. No. 5 receives a little less than the player selected at No. 4 and a bit more than the guy who was pickedsixth. The contracts are for three years with an option for a fourth. Thus, players get a nice window to prove themselves and if they do, then really big money awaits. For instance LeBron James, the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, received an average salary of $4.5 million a season for his first four seasons. After proving that he was one of the league's best players, he was rewarded with an annual salary of $15 million per season.

There are other issues on the table like a 17th regular season game, and of course the percentage of revenues that will be used to create the salary cap, but those are minor by comparison to the rookie salary scale, an issue where there is already an agreement in principle. An issue like a the rookie scale will take a few weeks of negotiating to settle, no picket lines, no Sundays with replacement players loom.

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