More Pro Athletes Should Handle Potential Free Agency Like Julius Peppers

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IJanuary 18, 2009

Many pro athletes only think about one thing when pursuing free agency: money.

Even if the decision to sign with a team has nothing going for them other than money, many pro athletes would join the team that offered them the most money.

That's not the case with Carolina Panthers DE Julius Peppers.

Peppers wants to play for an NFL team other than the Panthers next season.  But money is not the driving factor behind the decision to market himself in free agency.  That's obvious. 

If money was what Peppers cared about, he would have taken up the offer that the Panthers extended to him before training camp preceding the 2008 season which would have made him easily the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

Instead Peppers is letting playing conditions and chances to win determine where he goes.  To satisfy that desire, Peppers plans to go to a team that plays a 3-4 defense—in which he would likely play outside linebacker—the position that would best utilize his incredible balance of athleticism, strength, and speed, and has a chance to win the Super Bowl.

The part about playing for a team that can win immediately is restricted more to elite players who have been around for awhile and earned the right to make a demand like that. 

But if more pro athletes approached free agency concentrated on playing conditions instead of money, relationships between players and their teams (or employers) would be much better. 

Players would be able to relax, and play the game the way they play it best.  They would be able to have fun playing, which is why kids always dream about playing pro sports in the first place—to get paid to play the sport they love.  A team that has fun playing is a team that plays looser and gives itself more a chance to win. 

Team success creates higher team and organizational moral.  Players feel better about themselves and their teammates.  Everyone has confidence in one another.  That's the makeup of a championship-caliber team.

Peppers even did extensive research on the 3-4 defense to make sure he could contribute in more ways in the scheme than in a 4-3, the defense that the Panthers and most NFL teams run. 

I just talked about how a team with high morale is a team can be successful more easily than team with low morale.

But what if something happens in the stretch run of the season that destroys the happy-go-lucky feel of the team?  Say the star player whose contract expires after the season starts talking to the media about how the team isn't offering him enough money in negotiations regarding a contract extension, that creates a distraction.  The magnitude of the distraction is decided by how the team reacts to it.  It may be a big deal, it may not.

But the team morale that was so good just a week ago diminishes.  The team lays an egg in a key game with playoff implications.

Then the player who has been talking about how the team is stiffing him starts jabbering again, this time about how money isn't the only reason he's now certain he wants to play for another team the next season. 

It's also because he dislikes several of his teammates, and the coach is giving him lip for taking plays off.  Not to mention that he hates the climate in his team's city.

The player continues to jaw like this until his team's moral has all but completely disappeared.  This new overwhelmingly negative team attitude has severely affected the team's performance, as it is now almost out of the playoff race. 

In order for the team to get into the postseason as the second wild-card team, they must beat the hottest team in the league in their final regular season game.  The kicker—the starting quarterback got hurt the previous week, and the game is on the road.

Okay, so that's an extreme example (well, maybe not to the Dallas Cowboys), but the concept is what's important.  A distraction can create a domino effect on the whole team and send its season spiraling out of control.

Julius Peppers didn't do that.  Ever since reporters began asking him about his potential future with the Panthers, he declined comment until the end of the season.  The only thing he ever said during the regular season was that he was focused solely on doing his part to help the Panthers accomplish their team goal, winning the Super Bowl.

If more pro athletes approached potential free agency the way Julius Peppers has, there would be a lot fewer free agent busts and better relationships between players and teams.

The National Football League would be a much better organization.