I am a huge fan of the NFL, and I also recognize that players are extremely underpaid in comparison to the value they generate.
We hear fans scream about pampered athletes all the time. They complain that players are paid exorbitant amounts and treated like rock stars. The average person has a vision of a mega-rich lifestyle with easy money, fast cars and behavior unencumbered by the norms of polite society. This attitude extends to athletes of all our major sports. While for a select few this is true, what fans don’t see is the risk involved in pursuing a career as a professional athlete; the blood, sweat, and tears that go into every day of their existence. The tenuousness of their position is forgotten, and so are the stories of life after the glory.
There is no greater example of this than the National Football League. Fans never seem to complain about the owners or league officials making incredible sums; if a player holds out for more money, they’re branded as greedy and ungrateful. In the politically-charged environment of today, they are even labeled as unpatriotic.
The National Football League (NFL) is the most popular professional sport in America with annual league revenues of just over 15.26 billion in 2019. The League distributed $9.5 billion to its 32 teams, so each team individually brought in $296 million last year. It was an 8% increase over the previous year. Despite a decline in TV ratings over the past few seasons, it still makes the majority of its revenue from TV deals as many of those deals have built-in increases. Ticket sales, merchandising, licensing rights and corporate sponsorships make up the other large revenue streams.
Roger Goodell’s salary is said to be near $40 million; since the League dropped its federal exemption in 2015, it no longer has to disclose that expenditure. The league now has trade association status, made up of and financed by its 32 member teams. The owners individually are almost all billionaires, who made their money in other industries. Yet, the NFL still pinches pennies. In 2016, an arbitrator ruled that the league withheld $120 million of ticket revenues from the players’ pool of funds over a three-year period.
In contrast, the league’s players have the lowest average salary, lowest minimum salary, and the shortest average careers. It’s also the only one of the four major sports that don’t offer fully guaranteed contracts. The reasons vary—weak union, players’ economic backgrounds, the frequency of injury, changing priorities, and the militaristic culture of the game.
Size Does Matter
There are a total of 1,696 players on League rosters (32 teams, 53 man rosters). With such a large number of employees, one would think that the players’ power would be ever-expanding; but that’s hardly the case. In the offseason, teams can carry up to 90 players for a variety of reasons (only 51 counts against the cap). The cost of carrying that many employees (plus practice squads, coaches and accompanying support personnel, all of whom don’t count against the cap) can mitigate against increased pay; or at least be used as an excuse. No league in the world spends more on personnel than the NFL, but that is a very misleading statistic. Discussions about expanding the rosters continue, and that is sure to happen during the next CBA. Changes in practice squad rosters, health protocols and the playoffs brought on by the pandemic may be permanent.
With their smaller rosters and stronger unions, the NBA, NHL, and MLB pay out more salary per player. Since the league's 2011 CBA, the share of revenue players receive is capped at 48.5%, with a minimum requirement of 47%. The NBA’s latest CBA grants a 50-50 split of all revenue, which is approximately $7.3 Billion.
While fans can point to large contracts and vent their frustration, looking behind the numbers at the structure and rules of the League, one can only conclude that there is a fundamental unfairness in its compensation.
Glory Is Fleeting
Average careers in Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NHL and the NFL range between 4-8 years. So for most professional athletes nearing 30, it’s time for a career change. In the NFL, the average career lasts just over three years, about a season and a half less than the other three leagues.
A year and a half does not seem like a lot but think about the potential earnings lost for someone in their 20s. That’s a lot of game checks. There is also a built-in disadvantage within the sport. The League mandates that you must be out of high school at least three years before you are eligible to play. So playing college football is really the only avenue to a pro career. However, players don’t necessarily get into the NFL right away after college. Even if drafted there might be a practice squad assignment. Many do a stint in the CFL, Arena League or one of the other small, alternative leagues that have formed in the past few years. As a result, the actual age of entry into the League is much older than the other sports. The direct correlation between age and earnings remains the same, which shrinks career earnings power almost immediately.
By the time a player reaches the NFL, they’ve been most likely playing for up to 10 years (youth, Junior High, High School, and College). That ages the body quickly. While basketball, baseball, and hockey players also start young, the toll on the body is nowhere near the sport of football.
So players have to make their money quickly. The chances of an NFL player being around after the age of 30 are infinitesimal. Less than 20% of the players in the League are over 30, and that shrinks to single digits when discussing those over the age of 35. Peak earnings occur between the ages of 23-27 within the League. A survey of players during the 2016 season yielded the following breakdown.
This contrasts sharply with MLB, where the average age on a roster is 28. Baseball players are just hitting their peak as they approach 30. In 2019, Mike Trout, the centerfielder for the Angels, inked a new deal worth $426,500,000 with a $20,000,000 signing bonus; all of it guaranteed. The 28 year old was entering his ninth season. His career earnings had already exceeded just over $81 million. But money does not always equal team success. The Angels' last postseason appearance was back in 2014 ; Trout batted .083 as the Angels got swept by the Royals.
Show Me the Money
The minimum league salary for rookies in 2018 was $480,000. Per the agreement, it goes up to $15,000 every year for all players. While that sounds like a lot of money, much of it is not guaranteed, and many players are unceremoniously cut from rosters throughout the season, which is all allowed under their CBA, with some restrictions. There are also salary cap implications for cutting or trading players; some contract money has to stay on the team’s books regardless of a player’s status; this is known as “dead money.” Smart teams learn to manage this problem, and they usually get to the postseason consistently.
There is always some guaranteed money in each contract, but never what the public thinks. Guaranteed “money” comes in the form of signing bonuses, and other compensation such as sack totals, and making All-Pro. Less than 60% of all player compensation was a form of guaranteed money. We see that with well-known players who are usually in their third contract. So if a player signs for $80 million over four years, it may sound exorbitant, but that’s made up of incentive-laden clauses over the life of the contract. Everyone was outraged when Donovan McNabb signed for $78 million with the Redskins in 2010. He actually received just over $7 million because he was released the following season.
For those pointing to contracts for such players as Tom Brady, Kirk Cousins, and Aaron Rodgers, the numbers skew the pool. Those types of players make up a tiny fraction of active rosters. Cousins actually got a fully guaranteed contract, believed to be the first of its kind. However, it does not appear to be the start of a trend.
As one sportswriter put it bluntly, it’s a “have and have-not” league. In 2017, 17% of the NFL’s $5 billion in payroll was spent on just 50 players. Half of the total payroll went to just 250 players.
Many star players work for the minimum of their first few years in the League. Russell Wilson, who was drafted in the third round of the 2012 draft, won a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and appeared in another in 2014; plus 12 playoff games in which he’s gone 8-4. During this time, he was one of the lowest-paid starting quarterbacks in the League, playing out his rookie contract. In his third season, he earned only $681,000.
Since the last CBA (2011), rookie contracts have been limited in their compensation. Wilson re-signed with the Seahawks for a lot more money in 2015, but it was still under what he would’ve gotten on the open market. Finally, in 2019 he received his payday, signing a 4 year, $140M extension with the Seattle Seahawks that included a $65M signing bonus, $107M of total guarantees. This made his average annual salary $35M. He accomplished more in his first four years than most veteran QBs while costing the Seahawks virtually nothing.
Wilson is also that rare player who has avoided significant injury and maintained success. Regardless, once a player approaches the age of 30, contract offers are like two-dollar bills, good luck finding one.
The Salary Cap
Instituted in 1994, the salary cap denotes the set of money each of the teams is allowed to spend on player salaries for a given year. When introduced, it was based on gross revenue. Now, it includes all streams of revenues such as stadium naming rights, season tickets or merchandise sales. It only applies to player salaries. As of 2019, the salary cap is $188.2 million. The formula is rather complicated and is subject to change when a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated. The primary requirements of the cap are the teams’ minimum spending requirement and that the league as a whole must spend 95% of its total cap space. If not, then the remaining funds go to the players.
The debate rages on regarding the benefits of a salary cap. It does tamp down overall salaries, but many of its proponents claim it helps manage revenues in a responsible fashion and keep teams competitive. However, the cap has unintentionally created a two-tier compensation system. As more money flows into the quarterback position or wide receiver, other positions receive less, particularly the backup QBs. One injury can devastate the entire season. Keeping an equivalent player to Aaron Rogers or Tom Brady is nearly impossible. Fan favorites get released for cap reasons every year. Pressure on the underpaid rookies grows. For years, we heard that free agency is the culprit that breaks up teams; but it’s really the salary cap.
No Pain, No Gain
Nothing shortens an NFL career faster than injuries. According to the Harvard’s 2017 Football Players Health Study, funded by the NFLPA, the mean number of injuries suffered per game in the League is 4.9 times higher than the total per game for MLB, NBA, and NHL. That is a staggering figure. The study also found that NFL players are 3.8 times more likely to suffer a concussion in a regular-season game than an NHL player.
Injuries are part of the game. A player is always looking over his shoulder, knowing there is someone waiting on the sideline to take their place. So for muscle pulls, sprains, tears, and even broken fingers, time lost is much less significant. Teams will list these so-called minor injuries as "questionable" on their weekly reports, if they get reported at all. Players will try to hide a lot of things too. They get on the field no matter what it takes. These injuries take their toll in the aggregate; over time they diminish skills.
However, when it comes to serious, and catastrophic injuries, the NFL is getting rather sensitive about it. Lawsuits by ex-players have contributed to the League’s paranoia. The history of the league is littered with the names of great college players, even Heisman winners, whose careers were gone in an instant due to a blown knee or multiple head and neck injuries. Despite rules changes, the rate of these types of injuries does not seem to be abating.
Over the past six years, the rate of serious knee injuries has remained steady, with a slight decline over the past two years. The medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are the most frequent serious knee injuries around the league. The MCL is more common because of its location on the inner side of the knee, running from the end of the femur to the top of the tibia. Its job is to prevent the femur (thigh bone) from sliding side to side. The ACL ligament is located in the middle of the knee joint, and its job is to keep the femur from sliding onto the tibia.
ACL tears can be much more devastating because of its location deep within the knee structure and the multiple ligaments within the ACL. When players hear they have an ACL tear, fear and uncertainty take over.
Surgery is not always necessary for either injury, but with an ACL tear, players usually end up going under the knife. Orthopedic knee braces have become commonplace for many players, particularly offensive lineman and they have helped reduce injuries somewhat.
The increased spotlight shone on concussions has created more awareness for players and fans as well as rules changes. The NFL releases an injury report after every season. Increasingly, this has come under intense scrutiny by media, the union and fans. Even during games, fans are watching ever closer. When a player is injured, particularly if it’s a possible concussion, cameras follow the player and medical staff on the sideline. Then the cameras cut to his coach. Fair or not, perception becomes reality. Since 2017, medical examination tents have been added to each sideline for privacy.
The concussion protocol was instituted in 2009 in the aftermath of a disastrous appearance before Congress by Roger Goodell and other executives. The protocol laid out procedures for players suspected of having concussions. Every year it is updated with the latest medical knowledge and testing. Among the adjustments to the policy were requiring teammates, coaches or officials to take an apparently concussed player directly to the medical team, and adding a neurosurgeon on the sideline who is not affiliated with the League.
Data compiled by IQVIA, an independent third party retained by the league, showed a 13.5% increase in diagnosed concussions from 2016 to 2017 (243 to 281), which included the preseason and regular season. The increase comes after 28% of concussion evaluations emanated from self-reporting by players -- a nine-point increase over last year. Nearly half (47%) of all concussions included some self-reporting component when being flagged by team doctors and independent neurological specialists.
There were significant declines over the next two seasons. In 2018, the NFL reported 214 diagnosed concussions, a nearly 27% decline over the previous season. Though that figure rose slightly in 2019, it was still a 23% decline over 2017.
In theory, the protocol has allowed players the freedom to self-report without repercussions, although the notoriously stubborn players fight to stay on the field no matter how bad their head hurts. Even the players have to be reminded of the tragic circumstances that led to these changes.
The Turning Point
In 2002, retired Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster died at the age of 50. A member of four Super Bowl Champions, he was known as “Iron Mike” because he hardly missed a start, playing in 245 games. Unfortunately, that toughness doomed him to a miserable retirement. He immediately began showing signs of mental illness. Then came the headaches, fits of rage, body pain and later dementia. Periodically homeless, he finally succumbed despite aid from former teammates and family. Samples of his brain tissue were eventually given to the University of Pittsburgh pathology department for testing. It was through this testing that the condition, known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), became part of the public consciousness.
While this condition was known to be prevalent in boxers, the number of deceased NFL players determined to have the disorder has surprised many in both the medical and athletic communities. Since the condition can only be determined through post-mortem testing, another condition known as post-concussion syndrome took on greater importance. Knowing the symptoms and possible treatments became vital in the past decade. Everyone from team doctors, coaches, to family members is increasingly looking for signs of depression, mood swings and memory loss.
Doctors involved in the initial study, most notably, Dr. Bernard Omalu, also began speaking out on the findings. They persisted despite incredible pressure from the League and its media partners. Threats and other forms of intimidation were showered on the medical teams. It was a sad chapter in the sport’s history.
Increased media attention also brought investigative reporting on the tragedies of post-NFL life and in particular, the struggles with post-concussion syndrome. Then in 2011, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven players, which claimed the League knew the dangers of traumatic brain injuries for years but did nothing to minimize them. The suit eventually had thousands of claimants. A settlement was reached in 2015. By the middle of 2018, claims had reached nearly $500 million. As part of the settlement, free health screenings were also provided. Over 6,000 former players had been assessed for signs of concussion-related diseases such as dementia and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Sadly, claims of legal malpractice and poor claims administration have dogged the agreement for the past two years.
Over the past decade, a rash of suicides by prominent ex-players stunned fans. Parents have been reevaluating youth sports choices. Other lawsuits have since been filed by former players. The NFL responded again with a program called Heads Up, geared to youth football. It promotes a better method of tackling that does not lead with the head. This could be a case of too little, too late for a League worried about declining participation in youth football.
Whether or not these efforts will result in better lives for the players and make the game safer, more information is always better. This is life and death; no one should ever be denied the opportunity to make better choices when putting his life on the line. Some players have just walked away from the game, choosing their health over the chance for fame and fortune. Ultimately, the future of the game rests in the hands of moms. Will they let their kids play football? The debate will rage on for years.
Despite widespread criticisms, the NFL remains the most popular sport in America. 17.7 million attended games in 2017. The average attendance per game was just over 69,000. Regardless, the topic of player salaries will remain volatile. Kids grow up pretending to be athletes, not corporate executives. So many folks can’t make the intellectual connection that professional athletes are just like every other form of labor. They deserve proper compensation for their skills and greater respect for the dangers that they face. More media scrutiny on CEO pay and owners’ income might help. Let’s support the players' right to earn what their worth and live fulfilling lives after their bodies give out.
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© 2018 CJ Kelly