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Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb’s injury is exhibit A for fully guaranteed NFL contracts

The issue highlights one of the biggest moral injustices in pro sports

The destruction of Nick Chubb’s knee is a reminder of how sickeningly violent the NFL really is – and how NFL owners should put morality over money and pay these athletes their due.

I can hear some of y’all calling me naive already. Billionaire owners didn’t become billionaires by giving in to their feelings. But what happened to the Cleveland Browns running back on Monday Night Football was so horrific, while at the same time so predictable, even the coldest cash-counter’s heart could feel a flicker of conscience.

In the second quarter, at the end of a five-yard burst up the middle, Chubb was being tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Cole Holcomb when safety Minkah Fitzpatrick dove in to make sure Chubb hit the ground. Chubb’s foot was planted and Fitzpatrick slammed his 207 pounds into Chubb’s knee. The joint bent sideways at a 90-degree angle. The injury was so gruesome, ESPN didn’t show a replay. I’m generally not a fan of trigger warnings, but if you want to see what happened, it might make you revisit your lunch.

Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb reacts after his knee was injured during the second quarter on Sept. 18 at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh.

Lauren Leigh Bacho/Getty Images

One of the biggest storylines of this young season has been team owners refusing to give young, productive running backs contracts comparable to other key players. “Something feels wrong,” wrote ESPN senior NFL reporter Bill Barnwell, and he’s right. But what’s really wrong here is one of the biggest moral injustices in pro sports – the NFL owners’ refusal to provide fully guaranteed contracts.

Injuries are certain in the NFL. The only questions are when, how bad, and how much pain these men will leave with when they’re done playing. The NFL has enacted various rules to protect players, but the violence in football will never change, because then it would not be football. Broken bodies are a feature, not a bug. The unspoken goal of every hit is to injure the opponent just bad enough – within the rules, of course – that he is unable to keep playing.

What NFL owners can do is make contracts fully guaranteed. Especially for positions like running back, where every yard is paid for with health.

Fully guaranteed contracts are the norm in baseball and basketball. People who are hurt on the job still get paid if they are police officers, firefighters, or construction workers. If football players were working in factories instead of stadiums, their union would have negotiated more salary protection for them long ago.

Some of y’all are thinking that NFL players earn millions to live with that risk. Chubb signed a contract in 2021 that guaranteed him $17 million, and he will receive his $10.85 million salary this year even though he’s out for the season. But like the predatory mortgage I signed for my first house, Chubb’s contract gets worse as it goes along. The $12.2 million Chubb is due next season is not guaranteed, even though he was hurt while doing his job. The Browns are free to cut him – thanks for the yards, Nick, and the ligaments.

There are financial arguments against fully guaranteed NFL contracts. The NFL is the only major league with a hard salary cap, so money paid to an injured player would not be available to reward a replacement who performed well. If money was fully guaranteed, overall salaries might be smaller.

But the moral argument against guaranteeing that a player who sacrifices his body for the team will be paid? That’s weaker than the Achilles tendon that Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins snapped in the first game of the season, or the ankle that New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley jacked up on Sunday. (Barkley’s inability to get a contract worthy of his stardom was the main running back drama this offseason.)

It’s pretzel logic at its finest: Your job is really dangerous, and you’re probably going to get hurt to the point where you can’t perform as well, or at all – so we’re going to pay you less than if your job was safer.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley leaves the field at State Farm Stadium on Sept. 17 in Glendale, Arizona.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One of the most baffling things I’ve encountered in football, next to quarterback Cam Newton’s wardrobe, is people who root for NFL owners. The average franchise is worth $5.1 billion and generates $126 million in operating income. The only way the owners can get hurt is if they sprain an ankle hopping off a private jet. But when owners say they can’t afford a soft salary cap or fully guaranteed contracts, many fans call it smart business.

I’ll just call it greed.

Our society has become numb to things that were once considered immoral. Profanity is positive, drugs are healthy, cheating on your wife is not a big deal. In the NFL, catastrophic injuries like Chubb’s wishboned knee happen, and 16 million viewers kept watching. A young man was popped in the chest on the field last season, and his heart stopped – and we’re still watching.

The violence will continue. The only question is whether owners will pay the players what they deserve for taking the ultimate risk that is football.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.