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Only A Game?: Contracts & Conflicts

News & Features | November 4, 2014

In this column, Jamie Moore addresses the real-world issues implicit in the National Football League. Read his previous thoughts here.

A quick update on the players involved in ongoing abuse scandals: Adrian Peterson has a court date in December (more information to come in another column), and both he and Greg Hardy remain on the NFL’s Commissioner’s Exempt List. Ray McDonald has not yet been formally charged. Ray Rice remains unemployed.

There are two schools of thought on the most fun type of football game to watch. Some fans argue for the nailbiters, in which the two teams closely compete down to the final seconds. Others stand by the blowout, a wholly one-sided beatdown after which fans of the winning team rejoice in their total victory and fans of the losing side call for firings. I would contend that for a nonpartisan viewer, close games deliver maximum entertainment value over 3 hours of viewing time. However, as an invested fan dedicated to one particular team, I have to admit that an occasional disemboweling can really calm the nerves.

In the span of one week, my favored New England Patriots managed to play one game for each side of the debate to enjoy. On Monday, September 29, the Kansas City Chiefs trampled the traveling Patriots, who lost 41-14. I say trampled because the Chiefs’ running backs combined for 199 yards on the ground against a Patriots defense that missed tackles, blew assignments, and looked completely hapless. The Patriots offense, meanwhile, put up only seven points against meaningful competition—backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo scored late in the game against the Chiefs’ JV squad.

This happened on a Monday. What followed was a week of media recrimination, fan panic, and frantic reports that something was deeply wrong with the Patriots. The players were feuding with coaches. The coaches were mismanaging the team. There were even hints dropped that star quarterback and famed UGGs endorser Tom Brady would be traded because of his declining performance.

Then, on Sunday, October 5, the Patriots played the Cincinnati Bengals at home in Foxboro, MA. The Bengals were coming off a bye week (a week off that each team gets once a season) and up to that point, had looked dominant. But then, they proceeded to lose to the Patriots 43-17 in a game that was competitive for perhaps ten minutes.

This, of course, serves to illustrate the fact that football is a cruel, cruel mistress who loves to jerk fans around and make commentators look like idiots. Beyond that fairly obvious conclusion though, this week did bring the business side of football into the mainstream discourse.

It is important to mention that football contracts aren’t really contracts in the this thing is binding to both parties sense of the word. Football contracts are mostly nonguaranteed; the vast majority of the value of most NFL contracts can be taken away at the behest of the team. This, combined with a hard salary cap for teams, a set value per year that teams can spend on player salaries that grows slowly based on league revenue, often puts players at a tremendous disadvantage compared to management. While injury guarantees and certain rules protecting players are built into the players-league collective bargaining agreement, only the most famous, skilled players can actually hope for deals with large amounts of guaranteed money. Tom Brady is one of those players.

Before October 5th, there was some speculation that the Patriots would want to trade an underwhelming Brady, turn the team over to the aforementioned (rookie) Jimmy Garoppalo, and basically punt on this season. While that is out of the question now, and likely was never a possibility, the specifics of the Brady’s current guaranteed paycheck mean that the Patriots would have had to make the trade relatively early in season, before the trade deadline at the end of October. Yet, even though Brady continues to play well, the financial incentives to trade him right now—specifically, when his salaries for the next few years become guaranteed—still exist.

This fact is staggering. Due to the vagaries of the labor-management power imbalance in the NFL, one of the most famous players in the league could be traded away from his home of two decades to some other team desperate to contend. This type of transaction isn’t without precedent. Another Patriots player, offensive guard Logan Mankins, was traded to Tampa Bay this August after a long and productive career with the Patriots, mostly because the guaranteed parts of his contract jumped in value for the coming year, much like Brady’s will over the next few years. While NFL ownership is notoriously risk-averse, owners are even more averse to paying guaranteed money to a player who isn’t worth it on the field.

Contrast this with other sports like basketball or baseball, where contracts are, for the most part, fully guaranteed and binding to both parties. A three-year contract with a total value of $30 million given to a basketball player will, in one way or another, pay the player those thirty million dollars unless the player retires. Bonuses or performance-based incentives add to that base value. In the NFL, any nonguaranteed salary years are performance-based incentives in everything but the name—if the team doesn’t like how a player is doing, that player can be cut with relatively little penalty. In the cases of some unlucky players, their contracts are cut short purely because those contracts made the team’s salary cap situation more tenuous.

Why do NFL players get such a raw deal compared to players in other, less popular (and profitable) sports? Mainly, because their union is relatively weak, while NFL ownership and management is strong. The reasons behind this imbalance are numerous enough for a column of their own. For now, take solace or sorrow from the fact that even NFL players—big, fast, strong, smart, larger than life—have to deal with union negotiations too.

Header image by Keith Allison/Flickr via Creative Commons.