Kevin Clark of The Ringer took a deep dive into the growing income inequality among NFL players. It’s worth your time. Basically, the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2020, has created a system that is markedly slanted in favor of a small fraction of players. This was by design: The goal was to reward stars and established veterans once their contracts expired, and that’s been happening. But not without plenty of unforeseen consequences for pretty much everyone else.
Even as the league’s salary cap—which is tied directly to revenues—has grown 39 percent since 2011, teams have found a variety of ways to keep earnings down for both bottom-of-the-roster younger players and middle-of-the-road aging vets. “It’s a have-and-have-not league,” former Buccaneers GM and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik told Clark.
As Clark explained in great detail, teams in recent years have increasingly inhibited players’ earning power through a proliferation of mechanisms like injury splits in contracts, per-game roster bonuses in lieu of salary, and (as we’re seeing this year) more and more one-year contracts.
These devices, combined with a rookie-wage scale that mandates four-year deals for all drafted players—with no opportunity to bargain for an extension until after Year 3—have served to strip away at what little leverage many players have when negotiating.
Clark quoted Andrew Brandt, an ESPN analyst who also contributes to The MMQB. Brandt has been an agent and a VP for the Packers who handled contract negotiations, so he’s understands the view from both sides of the bargaining table. He gingerly stopped just short of tossing out the C-word to describe NFL teams’ tactics:
Brandt notes that in the same way coaches crib schemes from others, copycat front offices mimic the contract negotiations occurring elsewhere. When teams gather at the annual meetings, the league’s management council (a group of owners and team executives) often discusses contract structures. “They are careful not to recommend, ‘This team is doing this or that,’ but they’ll show you examples of language and what teams are doing, and you learn best practices,” Brandt says, adding that the presenters are careful not to even imply that teams should collude. Most of the talk in these meetings, Brandt says, focuses on themes like splits or voiding certain guarantees under extenuating circumstances, such as suspensions or off-field problems.
The owners (shockingly) cry poverty, with former Raiders CEO Amy Trask telling Clark she “doesn’t think the league’s financial inequality is a function of the cap; rather, she believes that some teams just don’t have the cash to give to players, or have banking arrangements that prevent them from spending too much in a given year.” You know, because if the owners choose not to stick all of their gargantuan revenues into liquid assets, it’s the players’ problem.
The NFLPA’s player reps tend to be veteran players, and those veteran players got things like a shortened offseason practice schedule and fewer padded practices in-season. While it’s obvious this is beneficial for the health of older players, a young, bottom-of-the-roster player once told me such restrictions have had the unintended effect of cutting into his time to get in more on-field work to improve his play (and, perhaps, to better his earning potential). But the union, made up of older, wealthier players, is naturally going to advocate more strongly for salary structures that benefit those sorts of guys—and that’s exactly what’s happening.
Of course, anything that benefits the owners might be a function of their lawyers having outsmarted the NFLPA’s in the 2011 negotiations, by taking advantage of strategies and loopholes the union didn’t foresee six years ago. The NFLPA’s George Atallah told Kevin Clark what’s happening is “a function of how teams behave” that is not indicative of any deficiencies in the CBA itself. Which, come to think of it, is actually a pretty big indictment of the CBA the union agreed to.