The Hammer

By Anthony Harris
Updated: November 26, 2005

NEW YORK, NY —Of the four major professional sports leagues the National Football League clearly wields the most clout in its relationship with the players union.

Go ahead take a quick comparison check.

In baseball, buoyed by the courageous – if not fully appreciated – efforts of the late Curt Flood in free agency, the rank and file has always forced the owners to blink when push comes to shove.

In basketball, regardless of what you think about age or other issues like the quality of the game, brothers are getting paid!

The National Hockey League is an interesting test case as the immediate future of the league is at risk with the owners determined to force “cost certainty” (imagine that, I’m sure a lot of tenants would like that when their lease expires) down the players’ throats. According to league commissioner Gary Bettman 75% of the league’s revenues currently go towards players’ salaries, but the NHL has no relevant television deal.

Furthermore, unlike any of its counterparts the NFL does not offer guaranteed contracts.

In fairness it should be noted that NFL teams are very different from the others in that rosters accommodate as much as 53 players, but on the flip side the potential for career ending injury, or worse, is higher.

To at least guarantee some form of financial security in a pot of gold (in 2001 league revenues were $4.8 billion, and were expected to increase to almost eight this year) we often see large signing bonuses added to otherwise irrelevant player contracts if they were to get cut.

On the surface it would appear that there would be some animosity when say a Kellen Winslow, Junior signs a $16.5 million signing bonus with Cleveland without having played a down in the league.

However, NFL players are fully aware of the landscape.

In his very compelling book, The Rest of the Iceberg, former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith recalls the pats on the back he received from veteran players after he held out for what he felt was fair value.

Smith had just completed two injury-plagued seasons, but when he walked into training camp after the holdout his teammates, including veterans, greeted him with respect for sticking to his guns and not being low-balled.

Moreover, in the recently released book, we find out that former Vikings coach Denny Green frequently called players “corporations”, urging them to maximize their market value while they could.

NFL players seem to have a healthy understanding of where things stand.

Take the example of Ryan Leaf, the second overall pick in the 1998 draft (he’s now out of the league for his sophomoric behavior), who signed an $11.2 million bonus.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, at the time the consensus “best quarterback”, wasn’t envious of the deal.

“I don’t worry about it,” he said six years ago.

“Leaf was the second pick of the draft. You’ve got defensive linemen making over $6 million a year now, running backs making over $6 million. That’s the way it goes.” I am always amazed to hear folks draw the line with professional players’ salaries, but remain quiet when other entertainers earn large figures as well.

They’re both making what the market can bare, and remember no one has a gun to anyone’s head during the negotiations.

Clearly, $16 million is a lot, but youth and potential have always made teams and leagues drool over the possibilities and up the ante.

Nowadays leagues can increase their revenue via player jerseys.

For example, LeBron James (2003 first overall pick in the NBA, out of high school) and Carmelo Anthony (third overall, underclassman from Syracuse) helped lace the NBA’s pockets with an extra $3 billion in their respective jersey sales this past year.

The NBA does have some autonomy over the salaries of first-round picks, but they tend to contradict themselves when teams make high school players the top picks overall.

I haven’t heard any NFL players begrudge the recent large bonuses for first year players.

The consensus appears to be that you have to get what you can when you can, and after that your talent will give you your next contract.

I’m sure we’ve all heard players say, “it’s a business.” Conversely, those players not fortunate enough to garner the signing bonuses are left to a shallower sense of security.

In a somewhat related matter, the recent cutting of former Cowboys starting quarterback Quincy Carter could become a huge test case for the league.

The players association has filed a grievance claiming that the club administered the drug test that led to his subsequent release.

League rules state that only they can test players.

Again, we see the weak position of the NFLPA in comparison to say the MLBPA where in a disagreement, not involving substance abuse, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was able to delay a five-game suspension after he clearly threw several bats in the direction of two umpires.

Then, while on appeal, he got involved in another on-field dispute with the Yankees.

He eventually dropped the appeal and began serving the suspension on August 1st, some 15 days after the bat-throwing incident.

Then there’s Yankees shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who scuffled with Boston catcher Jason Varitek on July 24th.

He appealed and ended his three-game ban on August 19th.

In the NBA, Latrell Sprewell received most of his contractual money after a 68-game suspension for choking coach P.J. Carlesimo.

For Carter there appears to be no such opportunity, at least not yet.

Finally, the NFL’s ability to crush Maurice Clarett’s constitutional rights of joining the league after one year of college ball only allowed the hammer to put the nail deeper in the hole.