The casual fan of American sports probably has a basic understanding of sports contracts. In most leagues, teams sign players to deals, usually worth high sums of money over a certain period of time. Flashy deals are certain to make big headlines, such as Andrew Luck of the Colts signing a six-year, $140 million deal in 2016, or Steph Curry of the Warriors pulling in over $200 million in a five-year contract, which comes out to a little less that $500,000 a game. Rising contract values reflect growing popularity in certain sports areas and the lengths that owners will go to retain top talent. Occasionally, a player and his agent will find themselves at odds with the franchise they are in negotiations with, which can result in hostile behavior. Famed running back Emmitt Smith held out over a contract dispute on the Cowboys in 1993, resulting in a pathetic start to the season for the Cowboys. The front office eventually caved to his demands and he led his team to a Super Bowl victory. Joe DiMaggio went to battle as a far back as 1938, when he refused to play for less that $40,000, a battle he eventually lost. These struggles and negotiations are not new to sports.
One loophole around athlete compensation has jumped into the spotlight recently: the NFL’s franchise tag. The franchise tag is a tool used to keep players from exploring their options in free agency. Let’s say Tom Brady decides he wants to leave the Patriots and explore which teams want to sign the greatest quarterback of all-time. It is likely his phone would be ringing off the hook with contract offers. However, the Patriots have legal precedent to force him to keep playing for their team, by slapping him with a franchise tag. When a player receives the tag, they must stay with their club for one more year and earn the average of the top five players at their position. This policy is advertised as a way to keep small-market teams competitive, however it tramples on the rights of players and hurts the already damaged image of the NFL.
Take the case of star Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell. His talent on the field is obvious, with nearly 8,000 yards from scrimmage and 42 touchdowns in six year career with Steelers, enough to lead them on multiple playoff runs. And yes, his $15 million a year salary is a large sum of money. However, running-back careers can end in five seconds via a career-ending injury. The past two years Bell has fought the Steelers for a long-term contract, and this year has refused to play until he gets one. The reception to his holdout has been mixed, with his teammates chastising his desire for money and some in the media accusing him of greed. Some fans called for his suspension or a trade, disgusted with his decision to skip games and practices, all while the Steelers insist on holding on to Bell at below-market price.
Bell’s holdout is justified. Imagine you work at a small company and make $50,000, and then go out and get a Ph.D. and suddenly receive multiple job offers from large companies for triple what you were making. However, your company has exclusive rights to your labor and you are forced to stay with them for as long as they please, earning less than your value. Seems unfair? Now imagine that at anytime you could sustain an injury ending your productivity and with it, any sort of income for the foreseeable future. This is the struggle of a player under the franchise tag.
The issue affects fan bases as well. As an avid watcher of football, it is frustrating to see top talent sit on the bench due to the greed of billionaire owners who refuse to give their players their true worth. The only solution to this issue is negotiation between the NFLPA and the NFL owners. One potential fix could be a limit on the number of years in a row a player can be tagged. This would have forced the Steelers to give Bell the competitive contract he demanded for 2018, or he would be free to test the beauty of capitalism in the open market. Until the NFL revises an antiquated and unfair rule, prepare to see more top names exercise their limited rights to refuse to play until they earn fair wages.
Jack Leger can be reached at email@example.com.