March 11, 2020
“Hating labor and labor unions is America’s unofficial pastime. When a star athlete signs a multimillion-dollar contract, the talk radio lines explode with fans deconstructing the value of the deal, protecting the billionaire team owner’s money as if it were their own. Striking teachers immediately face the cries that they shouldn’t complain about their wages because they get the summers off. When football players, after years of providing entertainment for couch potatoes nationwide, sue their league for not disclosing the devastating health risks accompanied with the fame of stardom, those same fans, who bought the jerseys and asked for the autographs, turn coldly against their former heroes and say things like “Nobody put a gun to their head.” Americans expect workers to take what they get. If you don’t like it, leave. Or as they say in the NFL, next man up.” These are the opening lines of Howard Bryant’s essay entitled “What Colin Kaepernick Taught Us”, part of a collection of essays recently published in his latest literary masterpiece, his book Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field. Labor talks and fights in regular life are not popular, especially when unions are involved, but the sentiment is exacerbated when it comes to people who play a game for a living, whose contracts and salaries (usually with numbers starting on six-figure step of the financial ladder) are being widely reported on and dissected in all forms of media by experts and fans alike: pro athletes.
With the NFL Scouting Combine still fresh in mind, free agency around the corner and a proposed new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) already adopted by the owners, to nobody’s surprise, and currently under vote by the players, the subjects of labor in sports and the concept of free agency, particularly in the NFL, are very relevant.
In recent years, we have seen more players attempt, with more or less success, to have more control and power over their career: Richard Sherman or Bobby Wagner negotiating their own deals with their teams, Antonio Brown forcing a trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers and later a release from the then-Oakland Raiders now Las Vegas Raiders (before signing with the New England Patriots and subsequently being released by them), Le’Veon Bell sitting a season out, Ezekiel Elliott, Khalil Mack or Todd Gurley holding out early in the season in the hopes of renegotiating their contracts, etc. Although social media would have you think that most people in the public are pro players, the overwhelmingly negative reactions to these moves highlighted the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. NFL players remain seen as products and/or a bunch of whiny millionaires who should just be happy to be in the league
This time of the year is when the self-proclaimed pro-player crowd proves season after season how far from it it really is and, knowingly or not, turns into the best PR team for the shield and its teams, using arguments to criticize players’ moves and decisions that echo the rhetoric owners usually keep for closed-door meetings. I am talking about the highly-anticipated and always eventful time that is the NFL free agency. Although the first word – and keyword if you ask me – is “free” it seems to be the less relevant element of the equation. At least when we talk about players. For some reason, the media, the fans and people in front offices of teams can talk all day long about how a certain player can make a good addition to a team, who would fit their offensive or defensive schemes, whose market value is the best for that team’s salary cap or who can help the team achieve its goal, whether it is to simply be competitive, make the playoffs, get out of the wild card round or win a championship, but players are not allowed to think about what is best for them. Let me rephrase. Players can think about what is best for them but not out loud, and they are not allowed to act on it if what is best for them is not in alignment with what everybody else thinks is best for their current team. Off-season after off-season, all we keep hearing about from people other than the players, and mostly by fans, is loyalty. Players’ loyalty or lack thereof.
Not only do players have to be loyal but they also have to be gracious and classy toward their former organization when they get traded or released because “it is just business”. Nothing personal, they are told. They are also expected to not have a mind of their own. They have to check who they are and what they care about at the locker room’s door if these things might be seen as offensive to those who pay them, which include their employers and the fans, but I digress…
Every single player who is on an NFL roster right now will become yesterday’s news at some point and it can happen in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t matter if he is a superstar or a journeyman. His replacement is a draft pick away, a trade deal away or might even already be on the roster. Teams know it, players know it, the media know it, fans know it, and yet, players are always expected to do what is best for everybody else and wait until that shoe drops. And then what? The reality is that the average NFL career is quite short and players who are fortunate enough to make it to the league have to make the best of their time there. Winning a championship is the ultimate goal if you play sports at any level and even more so when it is your job but as in any job, especially one where your employer and your industry make a lot of money thanks to the product that you put out, how hypocritical is it for people to crucify players who want to be paid? Those championship rings look good on one’s fingers or in a case at home, and they make a great impression on a resume. They can also be the difference-makers in the decision to enshrine a player into the Hall of Fame when it is all said and done, but let’s be honest here, how many players from yesterday, today and tomorrow will ultimately make it to the Hall of Fame? This is a very selective club, as it should be. And so is the club of winners of the Lombardi trophy. Every year, by the time the pre-season is over, we have a good idea of how many teams will actually be contenders at the end of the season. This list of hopefuls gets even shorter as the season goes on and, ultimately, only one team can win.
Players are expected to never take ANYTHING personally, whether it is being called out by the media, being traded or released, being insulted by the fans. The line is always: “It’s not personal.” But, they have to consider everybody else’s feelings and interests when making a decision for their career, especially in free agency, which is the only time they have any form of control over their next move. And even that control is subject to limitations based on who the player is, his age, his history of injury, his production during the previous season(s), the position he plays, his value on the market, etc. Just because a player is a free agent does not mean that he is going to get what he wants. In the event that this player actually gets his wish in that instance, we have all seen guys being signed to 4 or 5-year contracts, just to see them being cut or traded before the end of these contracts. So, what control does a player really have in the end?
Still, they are told they have to be loyal to a fault when everybody else is seeing them as disposable pieces and playing fantasy football with their reality.
Just a year ago, the thought of Tom Brady playing in a uniform other than the New England Patriots’ would have seemed unlikely and maybe even ridiculous, but as he prepares to test free agency this offseason, for the first time in his career, and judging from multiple reports from highly respected NFL insiders, it now feels, more likely than not. Eli Manning retired at the end of the season, mainly because he could only see himself playing for the New York Football Giants, and he knew that they had already moved on to Daniel Jones, who they hope is their next franchise quarterback. Manning gave everything to the Giants, especially those two Super Bowl wins against the Patriots, the first of which denied the Patriots the opportunity to become the second undefeated team in NFL history. Phillip Rivers, who was drafted the same year as Eli Manning, gave everything to the Los Angeles Chargers (previously San Diego Chargers), and despite the lack of overall postseason success and the absence of titles under his tenure, this was his team, and until maybe last season, the consensus around the league was that he would retire a Charger. Like Brady, though, he wants to play next season, and like Eli, his team expressed its desire to move on. So, they mutually parted ways. And now, he, like Brady, is poised to hit free agency and test the market for the first time since he entered the league, something any player should have the opportunity to do if/when their opportunity comes. Rivers will be in a new uniform, for sure. Brady might too unless he and the Patriots come to an agreement that satisfies both parties. After twenty years, 6 Super Bowl rings, 4 MVP trophies, 2 regular season MVP trophies and much more, Tom Brady has earned the right to be courted by teams, to feel wanted, to get paid, and most importantly, just like anybody in the league and beyond that, in life, the right to do what is best for himself and the people his decisions will affect directly. Fans, media members, team executives might think they are among those people, and free agents, especially one like Brady owes them. But no, it is about him, his interests and that of his loved ones. He doesn’t owe fans, team execs or the media anything. And neither do any other free agents.
Free agency is literally the only time a player can make a decision regarding the next step of his career, with his own and his family’s best interest at heart, and even then, the freedom is attached to the rules agreed to in the current CBA and demand vs offer, and everything that comes with that, including the “selfish”, “disloyal”, greedy”, labels put on them by upset fans, executives, and the narratives borne out of these decisions, discussed ad nauseum in the media in the form of think pieces, twitter threads, and heated debates.
Pro athletes, in this case NFL players, can never win. If they go for the money, they are not ambitious enough, if they go for the best chance at winning a championship, they are choosing the easy road. If they are fortunate, they can sometimes find themselves in a position where they can actually go for both, but honestly, how often does that happen in a career? They are never going to please everybody and once they make a decision, they and they alone have to live with the consequences. If they go broke after their career ends, even if they won a championship or two along the way, very few people will cry for them. When their body, and maybe even their mind, start failing them later in life, they will need every penny they ever made and every benefit they are entitled to. Marshawn Lynch, in his exit press conference with the Seattle Seahawks, back in January, advises fellow players to “take care of y’all mentals, y’all bodies and y’all chickens.” Some mocked the vernacular and the delivery but those he was talking about and talking to knew exactly what he meant. That is what this labor fight is so important.
The CBA debates have highlighted, among other things, the potential for a real fracture within the ranks and such a fracture would play to nobody’s advantage but that of the owners. Divide and conquer. Although the agreement has been negotiated by the owners and the NFLPA negotiating team over several months, ultimately it is up to the almost 2000 eligible individual players to vote to adopt it as is or send it back and that is no small feat considering what is at stake both individually and collectively, short and long-term, and the variety of players that comprise the league. Both the Executive Committee’s and the 32 player representatives’ votes were split before the decision was turned over to the players and pro and con voices have been as loud as they have ever been, exposing the clear differences of opinions within the group. Although votes are only open until March 14th, at 11:59 pm, the current CBA does not expire until the end of next season, leaving time for more negotiations, more discussions, more clarity and less haste in the decision. The 2020 season is safe, protected by the current CBA. No decision until then would give players more time to talk, figure out what their leverage is, if there is any, and how to use it, and map out what are the most important points that need to be hit for them to get more than the strict minimum the owners have pushed on them, disguised as big concessions, in exchange for less civil rights and disability benefits, more wear and tear on their bodies, and a piece of the pie that is not nearly enough, just to name a few of the big losses players will take yet again, as documented in the 456-page proposal they have to comb through and vote on before the week ends.
Russell Wilson, the highest-paid player in the league, a Super Bowl champion and an 8-year veteran, expressed his disapproval of the proposal in no uncertain terms via social media:
ALL @NFL players deserve the same.
WE should not rush the next 10 YEARS for Today’s satisfaction.
I VOTE NO.
— Russell Wilson (@DangeRussWilson) February 26, 2020
Other big names like Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Donald, Stefon Diggs, J.J. Watt, Maurkice Pouncey, joined in, urging players to vote “No” while players like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Devon Kennard and Jake McQuaide were among those who voted “Yes”.
Ted Karras, New England Patriots OL, a 4-year veteran, a two-time Super Bowl Champion and alternate player representative for the team behind Matthew Slater, in a conversation with ESPN’s Mike Reiss, was asked: “As you were debating how to vote, what was something that was tough for you to accept?”. His answer: “The overall revenue was a big concern for a lot of guys. Obviously, that 17th game as well. The way I framed it for myself, I got into this to play football. We’re paid to play football, and even though the revenue maybe wasn’t as high as some guys wanted, the cap is going up, and the percentage that teams must hit of the cap is going up. So for a guy like me – I’m never going to be the $100 million earnings guy – I have a short window of opportunity to make money playing football. If I can increase my earning potential by a quarter-million dollars a year, I think that’s important and I would want to take advantage of that.”
Karras isn’t a superstar but his position in the middle of the pack is more representative of the majority of players in the league than that of Rodgers or Wilson. There are more Ted Karrases than Russell Wilsons in the league and although the latter may have more security and influence, and bigger platforms than the former, ultimately, when it comes down to it, each player has only one vote to account for: his own. Football is a team sport and winning usually depends on being able to get everybody on the same page and fighting toward a common goal but it is not always enough. In these negotiations, there isn’t a clear common goal, besides the growth of the league. Everybody would benefit from a bigger league but the concessions that players are once again asked just to stay at the table are tremendous and as in every large group, as diverse as this one is, not everyone is ready, willing and/or able to put the greater good ahead of their own interests should the two differ. And it is a big responsibility for anyone who has to cast a vote. This deal will be for 10 or 11 years, depending on when it is adopted, if it is. Ten years is a long time to be tied into this type of deal in a world that changes so much, constantly, and so rapidly. Nobody wants to have to go through a negotiation cycle every 2-3 years but there should be ways to leave the door open to renegotiation at least once during the life of this deal.
Players who will join the league next year and beyond will have to abide by a set of rules and conditions they had no role in implementing. And depending on how long their career lasts, they might never get a chance to affect any change. Ever. Should they just not go to the league because they don’t like the CBA? What other options do they have? There is only one NFL, and even though there are a few other avenues for one to play professional football, none of them are the NFL and all of them have conditions that would leave these players worse overall than what they would have playing in the NFL. This vote is for these players, too, whether everyone realizes or not, and whether it is fair or not.
As if things were not concerning enough and as if the process did not feel rushed enough already, on Monday, March 9th, Russell Okung, an 8-year NFL veteran, current Vice President of the NFLPA Executive Committee (EC) and one of the candidates for NFLPA President, seeking to succeed Eric Winston, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that the NFLPA, led by its Executive Director, DeMaurice Smith, is negotiating the proposed CBA in bad faith and is in violation of its own constitution by pushing a vote by the players despite the votes from both the NFLPA EC (6-5 against the deal) and the 32 player representatives (17-14-1 in favor of the deal) not meeting the necessary requirement of a two-thirds vote for the deal to be passed along to the full player group. In other words, the current proposal should have never been reached this stage. The charge filed by Okung also includes serious accusations of threats and intimidation tactics on the part of NFLPA staff and outside counsel hired by the union. [Okung withdrew his candidacy after filing the complaint,] Okung, with this filing is not only exercising his fiduciary right, duty, and obligation as a member of the NFLPA EC, at great risks to himself and his career, at a crucial time, with the election vote for the next union President set for March 10th, but he is also showing incredible leadership through resistance by pushing back against the status quo, opening the door for others to follow and demand more. Within a week, players, from newcomers, still finding their footings to well-established veterans, and everybody in between, have to cast a ballot to decide on the set of rules that will govern their league for the next decade and the president who will lead them into this new era, with great uncertainty regarding both.
Nobody leaves the game unscathed. Not even Calvin Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, Luke Kuechly or Andrew Luck. They left on their own terms, while they could still contribute, and after having success for several years, but they paid a heavy price. The physical and mental toll the game takes, whether immediate, short-term or long-term, does not spare anybody, no matter how many rings you win and how much money you make. NFL players have to do what is best for them (and theirs) individually and collectively, with the losing hand they have been dealt by the very nature of the industry and of the sport itself. As things stand, they can never win, neither at the CBA negotiating table or in free agency, but they must try and at least fight back. They owe it to themselves.
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