Owners vs. Players…vs. a Productive Sports League

Over at CBS Sports, Jonah Keri wrote a scorched earth article in which he takes sports fans to task:

And more broadly, that both amateur and professional sports organizations stomp on the rights of athletes to enrich those in power.

And that all of us as sports fans aid and abet a corrupt system, and lambast any policy or practice that might interfere with our enjoyment of games, because we believe we’re entitled to drama-free entertainment, any time, all the time.

I found this article quite interesting, and have a few of my own thoughts to share on the subject, with a particular focus on football since that’s the sport I know best.

I’ll begin by saying that I am in general agreement with Keri’s essential point: sports fans as a collective are far too favorable to owners. It’s understandable where this disproportion comes from: the team is constructed as a part of the city, and thus it can leverage civic pride in its favor. Players may come and go, but the team (with the notable exception of relocations) will always be near your home.

In recent years I think this disproportion has lessened, though of course not nearly enough. It’s easier for players to directly reach fans through social media, and more media outlets are willing and have the power to take owners to task. But I think we could all strive to do better in that goal. For my part, there’s a reason I regularly refer to former Broncos as “old friends”: I’m thankful for what they did in Denver, and want them to have successful careers, with the minor exception that they have an off day should they face the Broncos. Another tough habit I should try to break is to not simply call a contract bad, but that it’s specifically bad for the team–because that contract is in turn good for the player that was able to secure it.

And to double down, in the wake of yesterday’s article I’ll admit that should a terrible owner secure control of the Broncos, that could be the trigger for my fandom of the team to wane or vanish. The fact that I’ve never been a Denverite may make that easier, but I don’t believe that I owe a new era of Broncos ownership dedication just because the Pat Bowlen era was so good.

Moving away from the general, Keri implores fans to back some concrete proposal to tip the scales more toward the players. However, in these cases I find myself concurring in part and dissenting in part.

Compensation for college players

As many of you know, I’m in full agreement with this one; as Keri puts it: “Pay student-athletes for their work, at a level that properly reflects their value to their athletic programs.” If anything, Keri is underselling the disgrace; not only are these players not paid by their schools, but are also disallowed from making money on their own from third parties. And all this is happening while schools are hypocritically running lucrative moneymaking businesses of their own.

The recent “scandal” in college basketball should be proof positive that waging a War On Paying College Players is as futile as waging a War on Drugs. For the Buffs fans out there, former quarterback Joel Klatt was quite instructive on this point in an interview with Colin Cowherd.  Also on Cowherd’s show, Eric Dickerson (who is one of the most knowledgeable people on this subject) says what I’ve always said about college sports: there’s no other league in which “if ya ain’t cheatin’ ya ain’t tryin’” is truer.

Age and education limits

Once again, I concur with Keri in full. Football is really the worst with this as well.  The NFL and NCAA effectively collude to prevent players from making a living off their football talent for at least three years. As Klatt said, this is an anomaly compared to almost any other profession, and a disgrace.

If a player can convince an NFL team that he is talented enough to contribute, he should have the opportunity to do so. Likewise, if that player made a mistake in trying his hand at the NFL too early, he should be allowed to try his hand at college football, without penalty of ineligibility. We can fairly debate whether or not individual players are making the right choice, but they should still have that choice available.

Drafts

Here is my first point of disagreement with Keri: I do believe that drafts can be a positive factor toward competitive balance for the benefit of the sports league as a whole, even if they do put some restrictions on players’ rights.

I look at world of college sports, where drafts do not exist. What I see are teams that regularly dominate and teams that regularly suck. Schools like Alabama, USC, Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame may have temporary speed bumps, but are rarely bad football teams for a long time.  The same holds true for Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke in basketball. On the other hand, if you’re a football fan that went to Indiana, or a basketball fan that went to Penn State, you’re shit out of luck in seeing any prolonged success.

And while I’m stepping a bit out of my competency, I also consider European soccer leagues, a sport that from my understanding operates the closest to Keri’s ideal. I look at the champions of the Premier League, Ligue 1, La Liga, and Serie A and I see the same three or four teams dominating year in and year out. That’s not the world I want to see in the NFL.

Drafts, of course, are not a panacea for competitive balance. There will always be smart teams that draft well and stupid teams that draft poorly. And I will happily cede that drafts can be poorly designed. The NFL Draft certainly has its flaws (more on that later). But I do feel that a draft can at least set some sort of floor toward competitive balance that can give all teams reasonable hope.

Salary caps

Here’s my other point of disagreement: I do not see salary caps as inherently anti-player or anti-owner. Again, they can certainly be crafted to lean disproportionately, but they don’t have to be designed that way.

The common criticism against salary caps is that they depress players’ salaries. The first question I would ask is “for whom?” Is the goal to raise the highest bound possible for players’ salaries? If so, that’s fine for the stars, but it doesn’t guarantee that those raises will translate to the non-stars. If the goal is to get more money to all the players, then that’s directly a fight toward giving players a higher share of the revenue pie. A salary cap can then be properly raised in coordination.

Furthermore, in the NFL a cap on spending has also been paired with a floor on spending. For every team like the Redskins that tries to buy a championship, there will be a team like the Bengals that tries to run a team on the cheap to skim the profits. Players that aren’t able to get contracts from the big spenders will be stuck negotiating with the small spenders. A tradeoff in which there is both a cap and a floor on spending for each team strikes me as the best solution.

Freedom of contract

To attempt to tie my two points of disagreement with Keri into an agreement, the problems that I see with the NFL Draft and the league’s salary cap are tied up with restrictions on the kind of contracts players can sign with teams.  The rookie wage scale is the current lead aggravator of this in the NFL. Rookies must sign contracts of either three or four years, and their base salary is fixed at a very low value. They are not allowed to renegotiate their contract until they’ve played two to three years under their rookie contract.

Add onto this exclusive rights and restricted free agency, as well as the franchise and transition tags, and you get a situation in which good players are forced to play well under their market value for much of their careers. If players were allowed to renegotiate earlier and freer, they could be compensated properly even under the systems of a draft and a salary cap. I didn’t see “free agency” mentioned as a point in Keri’s argument, but I’m guessing that he would not find much to disagree with this point.

  • Jeremy

    I think the draft creates competitive balance because rookie contracts are so cheap. If players were able to renegotiate after year 2, the benefits from drafting early in the draft and from drafting well would be significantly dampened. I do think the fifth year plus franchise tag that can lock a guy up to 6 or 7 years restricts freedom too much, but the amount of players that affects is pretty miniscule, and the ones it do have already made a sizable about of money, even by NFL standards.

    I think if you want to create more parity and give players more choices, eliminating comp picks would help. They primarily keep the rich teams richer, and needlessly restrict which players teams target in free agency, further limiting players’ options.

    College football is such a mess. I think universities should be in the business of providing education to students and not running sports teams, but we are already so far down that path I don’t know a good solution. I think generous cost of living stipends, the ability to take significantly reduced course loads and bank your scholarship until after your football eligibility is complete, and better Healthcare for the players would be compromises to consider for student athletes.

    I completely agree ncaa eligibility shouldn’t expire if you try to play professionally.

    • Nick

      I think that if you let the player and team hash it out some middle ground will naturally be reached. “You want me to sign for four years at potentially below-market value? Fully guarantee my contract, or put in incentives or escalators for me to aim for. If you don’t want to do that, fine, but give me a shorter contract.” Every player will have different levels of leverage to use, but they should be able to use it instead of getting pigeonholed into a cookie cutter deal.

      I’d be fine with getting rid of comp picks but I’m not sure they make much of a difference anyway. The good teams get more of them because they’re smarter and likely going to be good based on that anyway.

      All of what you propose for college is fine, but as long as it undervalues the player, the black market will be around to equalize that value.

  • Yahmule

    I agree with Keri’s points. I did find that he went incredibly easy on sports owner super villain Jeffrey Loria in his other wise outstanding book, Up, Up and Away, which chronicled the rise and multiple betrayals of the Montreal Expos star crossed franchise. If you want to read an extremely chilling account of how a malignant minority owner can seize control of a franchise with an initial purchase of a mere 24% go ahead and research the way Loria took over the Expos and parlayed that into the Marlins.

  • cjfarls

    I pretty much completely agree with you here Nick.

    I think rookie deals should be limited to 3 years, with a RFA year in the 4th. That is plenty of time for a team to evaluate a player and determine if they want them to be part of a team’s long-term plans. If they want the player for the long-term… they need to pay up either with the franchise tag or in a long-term deal. If linked to a salary cap, that will still give teams the ability to develop and keep a core of talent that the fanbase can rally behind. Also, if the drafting team cuts the player, they are instantly UFAs and not subject to any salary restrictions, RFA rules, etc…. they simply join the pool of available free agent players.

    I’m torn on whether I think there should be a draft/rookie salary scale and whether the current is too low (or the old version too high). I’m probably of the mind that any rookie-scale should be at least as much as the vet minimum (just call it a league minimum). If we’re going to restrict the agency of the drafted players, I don’t know why we should also pay them less.

    Drafts and Salary cap/floor (agree these need to be linked) IMO are for the fans. Fans want competitive LEAGUES, and particularly for something like the NFL where the vast majority of funds are generated league-wide via TV contracts, etc…. All teams should have a shot with good management/luck. That simply isn’t the case in college sports, nor in more player friendly/free leagues like the MLB.

  • Kush-Lash

    Just got around to reading this. Very well thought out. Great read.