Let’s make a deal

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The 2007 NFL season starts today, and wouldn’t you know it, JaMarcus Russell, the first overall pick of this year’s NFL Draft, is still without a contract.

This isn’t surprising. Every year, veteran NFL players dissatisfied with their contracts and rookies frustrated with their prospective deals decide not to show up to training camp. For rookies, this is a gamble. By not participating in camp, you might get your team to give you a more lucrative contract. But if the team doesn’t give in, not only are you stuck with whatever deal it chooses to give you, the time you spent away from training camp has reduced your value to the team. If your team ends up releasing you because you can’t agree on a contract, your value as a free agent won’t be helped by the fact that you have played in zero NFL games yet already have a track record of being tough to cooperate with.

But my beef isn’t with rookies. The fact that the NFL Players Association is utterly impotent doesn’t help them out. It is completely within a player’s right to argue for any contract he wants. Nor do I have anything against players who are given the franchise tag, which allows each NFL team to lock one of their would-be unrestricted free agents into a one-year deal. In this case, the player has not signed a contract and is still forced into terms under which to play. Think about it – if you just finished the last year of a five-year deal with your job and you were hugely productive in your last year, you’d be ticked off if your company forced you to work another year before you could try and seek out other offers.

My problem is with players who have already signed contracts but who hold out because they think they aren’t being paid enough. Everybody knows the key example of this: Terrell Owens. In 2005, he was set to earn $3.5 million as a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. He thought this wasn’t enough given how he played the year before so he held out. Let’s say Owens had an abysmal year in 2004 ­- would the Eagles pay him less money in 2005 because he underperformed his contract? Absolutely not, because it’s a contract. It’s something you sign to guarantee a transaction of services (playing time) for compensation (money). If Owens or any other player thinks it’s within his rights to disobey his contract when his play exceeds expectations, he should be prepared to be paid less when he underperforms as well.

But aside from contract holdouts, there’s a deeper conflict that underlies most players’ dissatisfaction with their salaries. Take wide receiver Randy Moss, for example. During his seven years with the Minnesota Vikings, he put up stellar stats and went to the Pro Bowl five times. But when it came time to renegotiate, Moss was displeased with the money the Vikings were willing to give him for a contract extension. But the Oakland Raiders, fresh off a swell 5-11 season, decided that their problems would be solved by giving a fat contract to a stud wide-out. That’s a great idea if you’re the Red Sox and have an infinite amount of projectile money to throw at players, but football has a salary cap. So after Oakland gave Moss roughly $8 million per year in both 2005 and 2006, their junior varsity offensive line pioneered their 4-12 and 2-14 seasons. What happened after 2006? Moss complained about Oakland’s losing, a result in large part because they overpaid for his services, and decided to take less than half his current salary to join the Patriots, a team notoriously stingy for never paying contract holdouts (see: Deion Branch).

The odd part about all of these contract negotiations is that there is a conflict of interest not only between the player and the team, but sometimes the player’s desire to win and his desire for money. When every team has equal resources, as they do in the NFL, the teams that spread their payroll most efficiently will have success. Everybody has the right to do whatever is in their power to get the contract they want, but once you sign it, don’t hold out. If you truly want to win, that’s bad for you and your team.

Ben Singer ’09 was holding out on writing this column until he realized he wasn’t being paid.