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It’s time for the NFL to guarantee contracts for all players

Roger Goodell and NFL owners can show how much they value their players with a simple gesture

Like every billion-dollar American business, the National Football League has a certain image of itself that it likes to project to the world. There are the commercials that proclaim football is family and celebrate adorable Super Bowl babies. There are the initiatives with clever names sprinkled throughout any season, such as Play 60 and My Cause My Cleats. There’s commissioner Roger Goodell telling viewers, “Black lives matter.”

What’s left out of this narrative is the way the NFL treats its players, and the precarious position it leaves them in time and time again. The most recent example came days ago, when a mass protest by players on Twitter was necessary to get the NFL to tell them more about how it planned to keep players safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. That NFL leadership appeared to think the players might just show up seems ludicrous, except for how that thinking falls in line with how the league treats players all the time. After all, the NFL doesn’t even guarantee contracts.

Oh, sure, NFL contracts sound guaranteed. Whenever agents announce them, they make sure to highlight all the impressive-sounding dollar amounts spread out over a number of years, and those numbers are given to NFL reporters, who blast them out to fans. What’s often overshadowed by the big numbers is how, except for rookie deals, NFL contracts past their first year are, as former NFL executive Andrew Brandt once put it, more of a suggestion than a promise. They are long-term contracts in name only.

The lack of guaranteed contracts in football – the sport with one of the highest risks of injury and the shortest careers – in light of the league’s estimated $15 billion in revenue, reads as morally indefensible. And that’s before you factor in that this year the league is asking players to play during a global pandemic.

The owners gave the tiniest sliver of movement on the issue in the latest collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the players. But whatever language the owners cling to in the latest CBA as their excuse ignores the bigger picture. There is nothing legally barring guaranteed contracts, and the league has hundreds of millions of dollars that are unspent that it could use on contracts right now.

I want this for every NFL player. I want it for the quarterbacks, but also for the center, the tackle, and the cornerback, and the safety, and the kicker, and the punter. The inherent value in guaranteed contracts is playing out right now — quarterbacks are using their leverage to push for more guaranteed money and more control over their futures. In pro sports, what’s good for the stars often ends up being good for everybody. Free agency raised the salaries of all players. In the NBA, LeBron James’ contract innovations to empower himself were adopted by the players who came behind him.

What has prevented the guaranteed contract in the NFL are the same reasons so many American employers seek to pay their employees less: tradition, and greed. But some deals are pushing NFL owners to commit more. In 2018, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins signed a fully guaranteed contract worth $84 million. In 2019, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson signed a contract extension that included a massive guarantee of $107 million. And just weeks ago, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year contract extension estimated to be worth $450 million, including more than $141 million guaranteed.

A young generation of Black starting quarterbacks is taking the league by storm, and due to become free agents soon: The Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson and Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson are set to become free agents in the next few years. They’re poised to help start another revolution, one that stretches from Curt Flood sacrificing his career to force Major League Baseball to give players free agency to Freeman McNeil’s antitrust lawsuit against the NFL to football Hall of Famer Reggie White’s class-action lawsuit that won football players free agency. Black players have a history of demanding fair and rightful compensation for making the league billions.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes directs action during Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 2 at Hard Rock Stadium.

Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

First, it’s worth addressing that the non-guaranteed contract is a tradition that stretches back decades, hugely favors management and, like all traditions, is hard to break.

That’s why so many sports contract experts stopped what they were doing to break down the contract extension for Mahomes. Even though Mahomes probably won’t see all of the advertised $503 million contract, it’s valued at $450 million, the sheer amount that is guaranteed, and the amount of control he’ll have over his future with the team is rare. As Michael Ginnitti, co-founder and managing editor of the sports contract website Spotrac, told me, the Mahomes deal does show one path toward guaranteed NFL contracts. The Mahomes contract uses a mix of guaranteed roster bonuses to secure his salary each season while deploying money that must be counted toward the salary cap no matter what, called dead money, to make it almost impossible to trade or cut him.

“To me, that’s where we start. Maybe the guaranteed contract is the finish line. But when we’re talking about swinging the pendulum of leverage, it starts with structuring contracts that at least give players more options, more control,” Ginnitti said. “And maybe that doesn’t necessarily mean a hundred percent guarantees upfront, but it’s got these other caveats, which Mahomes certainly got.”

While successful quarterbacks can demand big contracts, most NFL rosters are filled with players making far less. George Atallah, the spokesman for the players union, told me that half their members play for the minimum salary. That’s why raising the minimum salary remains a big bargaining point in every negotiation over guaranteed contracts. The minimum salary was raised again in the latest CBA, which is good through the 2030 season. Figuring out how to get them guaranteed contracts requires tackling a talking point that NFL team owners have been giving since time immemorial: There are too many injuries in football. They can’t afford all of those guaranteed contracts.

First, this skips over an assumption the owners are making, that it is OK to pass the financial hazards of owning a football team onto the players, a group of men who are already taking on huge amounts of risk by playing the sport. Stanford economist Roger Noll, who testified on behalf of the players in their 1992 lawsuit, put it best years later when he said, “The absence of guaranteed contracts transfers the risk of injury or deterioration of skills from the team to the player.” By upholding a tradition of non-guaranteed contracts, each NFL team transfers the risks of possibly losing money due to injury from the team – for example, the Green Bay Packers took in more than $506 million in revenue last season — back onto the player.

Even with the salary cap in place, the owners can afford to pay players more guaranteed money, right now. The salary cap is a boogeyman, wielded by teams to limit player salaries under the guise of creating parity (it does not).

Said Jason Fitzgerald, founder of the contract tracking website OverTheCap.com: “It’s just an accounting system.”

Spotrac’s Ginnitti on the cap: “The political answer on the salary cap right now, the hard salary cap, is that it’s a way to make sure that the cash doesn’t get out of control. Other than that, it’s funny money.”

The math is pretty simple. At the end of each season, each team can roll over the portion of salary cap money it didn’t use, the same way we all used to roll over our cellphone minutes. That cash never goes away. It rolls over again, and again, and again. This means that many teams have actually stockpiled a good chunk of cash over the years that’s just sitting there, and the leaguewide total is more than $380 million. Sure, that seems small compared with the NFL’s billions. But the league minimum is $610,000.

“Some of these teams, especially some of the really bad teams, have acquired so much cap because of rollover after rollover, bad years after bad years, that there really is now a surplus. I mean, we started off free agency this year with over half the league having more than $40 million to work with,” Ginnitti said. “That’s unheard of. I mean, the NBA is completely opposite, there’s barely three teams right now that can sign anybody right now. Everybody runs up against the cap. That’s not happening in the NFL.”

There is one tool that does make it harder to write a guaranteed contract: the fully funded rule. It’s an archaic piece of language that’s been in the CBA for decades. It says that teams have to put guaranteed money, minus a certain amount, in escrow. It’s unnecessary given the NFL’s plush finances, and other sports leagues are doing just fine without it. In the newest CBA, the league agreed to allow a credit of $15 million in 2020 that wouldn’t go into escrow. Whether the NFL needs to get rid of this depends on who you ask. You could argue these teams shouldn’t have to put millions of dollars in escrow, and teams are known to wield this rule in contract negotiations. But also, these teams are owned by billionaires who ostensibly should be able to afford it.

“Some people don’t believe the funding rule plays a big factor,” said Mike McCartney of Priority Sports, who negotiated Cousins’ fully guaranteed deal. “I personally believe it plays a big factor.”

This puts football players in the unenviable position of having their contracts guaranteed, but limited, during their early seasons due to the rookie salary scale, then when they gain the ability to test the free-agent market, the fully funded rule comes in to cap their earnings, again. At every point in their career, NFL players see their wages suppressed and their income beyond any one year far from certain.

This leads to a pernicious talking point that team owners and their management like to suggest: Why don’t the players just bring this up in collective bargaining? This sounds like an easy option, but only if you ignore the entire long and painful struggle of NFL players over decades to gain rights from the owners that athletes in other sports take for granted. The best example being free agency, which NFL players got nearly two decades after baseball players and required a protracted legal battle that included a class-action lawsuit and decertification of their union.

Football historian Michael Oriard, a distinguished professor emeritus at Oregon State University who also played in the NFL and lost his job after striking in 1974, described the following scenario as what would be required for players to get fully guaranteed contracts via CBA negotiations: First, he said, a strike would fail “because the NFL will simply dig in, it will not accept this.” Instead, the players would have to try to negotiate it, fail at that, decertify their union, then go to court and argue, “Hey, look, a contract’s a contract. A contract must be mutually binding, and of course they would win in court.” But the players would pay a heavy price for this.

“In the meantime, there would be chaos. Financial chaos. And it would be for the players as well as the owners,” he said. “This is a fundamental labor right that football players don’t have, and they could only gain it at enormous cost to themselves as well as to the owners. And it just ain’t gonna happen.”

You see this sentiment echoed again and again when players are asked about this issue, usually right around the time the CBA is renegotiated. A great example is in 2018. Russell Okung, who played for the Los Angeles Chargers at the time, went into great detail about the many changes that should be made to the CBA to give the players more money and guaranteed contracts. The very same ESPN story quoted one of his then-teammates, Virgil Green, saying he had accepted the current version of the NFL contract. Typically, this is played out as why don’t some players just get it and negotiate harder. But players do get it. They both understand why the system is a sham – and the path filled with suffering it would take to maybe better contracts via the CBA. So much goes against them. The average NFL career is less than four seasons. The fans always side with the billionaires, and twice NFL strikes have collapsed after quarterbacks crossed the picket line. Peruse any list of Hall of Famers and you’ll find scabs: Johnny Unitas scabbed in 1974, and Roger Staubach scabbed in 1974, too. Joe Montana scabbed in 1987. It’s no coincidence, Oriard said, that in 1987 the union capitulated a week after Montana scabbed with his San Francisco 49er teammates.

Another argument against a guaranteed contract is that it will make NFL contracts shorter, but NFL contracts already tend to run shorter than advertised. It’s likely that fully guaranteed contracts, or even mostly guaranteed contracts, would look smaller and shorter but actually give players about the same amount of money while covering about the same amount of time that the team really intended to keep them. They wouldn’t be the sexiest-sounding contracts, they would be honest contracts.

“When you would hear a contract value come in, especially if it’s a one- or a two-year deal, yeah, that’d be a legitimate number, there wouldn’t be any fluff in it,” Fitzgerald said. “There wouldn’t be anything that you hear now where, you know, a report comes out that the contract’s worth $15 million a year. And then you find out later on, it’s probably worth about 7.”

That might be the hardest change of all to the NFL ecosystem. Part of the allure of the NFL is the fat contract, telling future football players that this could be them one day. Their name scrolling across the TV or trending across Twitter with eye-catching numbers, their agent giving quotes to reporters about what a great deal this is. Sure, those numbers are lies. But don’t these numbers sound good? Don’t they make you want to throw on the pads and play in the NFL? This is part of the narrative that the league tells about itself, that certain agents help promote and even reporters play a role in.

It’s a rosy picture of the NFL, shiny, glossy and filled with smiling faces, far removed from the culture and fear of getting cut that run through the league. It’s the NFL owners telling McNeil and White they should be happy with their salaries instead of demanding true free agency. How dare they ask for control over their futures. Because that’s what guaranteed contracts really are about, giving players control.

Maybe that’s why the NFL has avoided guaranteed contracts for so long. It’s not because they can’t afford them. It’s not because they can’t figure out how to write them. It’s because it would be giving the players real measurable power and control over their futures. And they would be honest contracts, and, as the truth tends to do, it would lead people to ask harder questions, in this case about the price of being an NFL player and about how much, or how little, the NFL actually values its players.

Diana Moskovitz is a journalist living in Los Angeles. A former senior editor at Deadspin, her work also has appeared in the Miami Herald, Jezebel, Cosmopolitan, and Popula.