Jimmy Graham Ruling Is Fair by the Book, but It's Time to Change the Book

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Jimmy Graham Ruling Is Fair by the Book, but It's Time to Change the Book
Derick E. Hingle/USA Today

What's in a name?

Jimmy Graham is a tight end for the New Orleans Saints officially. No ifs, ands or buts about it. 

This, following a ruling by NFL special arbitrator Stephen Burbank, as Ian Rapoport of NFL media first reported. Graham had filed a grievance against the Saints under the premise that he was far more comparable to a wide receiver in his usage on the field. 

Much ado about nothing for you and me, but for Graham, it is the difference between being tagged at the tight end number of $7.035 million (chump change, clearly) and the wide receiver-number of $12.312 million. 

Should Graham now strive to become the second coming of Chicago Bears great Mike Ditka or Baltimore Ravens Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome? Should Graham mimic former Atlanta Falcon Tony Gonzalez or Denver Bronco Shannon Sharpe? Is he Dallas Cowboy Jason Witten or former New York Giants star Mark Bavaro?

In truth, Graham isn't any of those superstars, and none of them is him. Tight end has long been a catch-all position in the NFL where the best of the best are rarely anything like the rank and file sitting behind them on the depth chart. 

The varying nature of the position has even led to plenty of diversification within schemes and playbooks. Terms like "Joker," "H-back," "On-the-Y," "Off-the-Y," "Flex" and many others try to describe roles within a position that is hardly a position anymore. 

Traditional tight ends—whatever that means to you—are so few and far between in college ranks filled with Air Raid, Spread, Option and other high-octane offenses that we hardly know what to do with one when we see him. Top tight ends in recent draft classes like Detroit Lions rookie Eric Ebron and Cincinnati Bengals second-year player Tyler Eifert did so little in-line blocking in college that their teams have to start at square one in the pros. 

When one even speaks of a tight end blocking these days, it's not from a three-point stance and on a defensive end. No, rather, it's probably on the move against a linebacker or a safety...if it's supposed to happen at all. 

So, Graham is a tight end in a league where few coaches agree on what a tight end is supposed to be. 

The Saints might as well have tagged him as "human" and called it a day.

One has to feel for Burbank, though. The arbitrator may be a "special master" for the NFL, but his curriculum vitae over at the University of Pennsylvania website doesn't really list a ton of qualifications outside the courtroom or on a football field. 

I mean, do you even lift, bro?

So, Burbank did what lawyers and judges do. He looked at precedent. 

In Burbank's complete ruling, as presented by Larry Holder of New Orleans' Times-Picayune, Burbank noted that Graham has called himself a "tight end" on Twitter and on Facebook, was selected as a tight end in the draft and has gone to the Pro Bowl as a tight end on the ballot. 

Burbank even cites the Oxford English Dictionary with definitions of "position" and "tight end," because no source is more apt to be on the cutting edge of football terminology than a dictionary named after a university where football is something played primarily with one's feet.

I can't dispute Burbank's ruling. If I could, I promise I would be making a whole lot more money and wearing a suit to the courtroom every day instead of sitting here wearing out the ol' laptop keys. The issue, though, isn't with the ruling; it's with the system that makes the ruling relevant. 

The game of football is changing, and the systems that govern football are not.

The United States' system of law is based on precedent, as stated before. To make a ruling in this or any other matter, one has to go back and look at similar cases, see how they stack up, all with a mind toward the governing principles at hand. In Burbank's case, he has to follow the rules and regulations of the NFL and general labor code, whereas many judges are more interested in local, state and federal law and that U.S. Constitution thingie you had to learn about in civics class.

The problem with a system based on precedent is that it doesn't mesh really well with a game that is rapidly changing.

What is a tight end? How about: What is an outside linebacker, safety, running back or almost any other position? The franchise-tagging system is so hilariously arcane that offensive linemen are tagged as a unit rather than separately by position. 

That last fact and "making sense" are so far apart from each other that Neil deGrasse Tyson couldn't even figure out how to measure the distance. Yet it's how the NFL works on the books, even if it's nowhere near how the NFL works on the field.

Not to digress too far into non-football matters, but the United States Supreme Court is at a similar impasse in terms of the ever-changing world of technology. The court is staffed by an ever-aging group of grey-hairs who are, at times, willfully ignorant (and proudly so) of an industry that plays an increasingly important role in the country they help govern. 

The problem, though, isn't age. It's that the court runs on precedent, and any analogy used to compare the evolution of our technological society to something the justices are familiar with is usually ham-handed and shoe-horned at best. Selina MacLaren of Salon.com explains:

Years of tortured analogies at oral arguments culminated most recently with this week’s cases, but a look back at decisions from years past reveals an abundance of strained analogizing. In past arguments, computers were analogized to typewriters, phone books and calculators. Video games were compared to films, comic books and Grimm’s fairy tales. Text messages were analogized to letters to the editor. A risk-hedging method was compared to horse-training and the alphabet. EBay was likened to a Ferris wheel, and also to the process of introducing a baker to a grocer. The list goes on.

The NFL may not move quite at the speed of data, but there is a great similarity between a Supreme Court struggling to grasp the intricacies of a world it doesn't even want to understand and a legal system built on precedent that won't be able to grapple with football. 

Right now, there's no real reason for the NFL to change—certainly not with rulings like this being so advantageous to management—but the NFL of the 21st century can't be governed by the controls, standards and practices that have their roots in the 19th. 

If the NFL is going to continue its ascent into the money-printing enterprise it's well on its way to becoming, the business aspect of the game isn't going anywhere. The size of the overall revenue pie isn't going to shrink anytime soon, so the ways in which it gets divvied up (between ownership and players, as well as among the owners and player camps individually) isn't going to be any less important. 

The tagging system needs to change. I'm not going to get into the fact that the whole franchise/transition tag thing is pretty much nonsense anyway and completely antithetical to labor-law precedent for the last century (oops, I did go there), but if the NFL is going to do it, at least seek to do it right. 

Fans, admittedly, don't care about much of this. 

Graham is going to get paid. Even if he ends up earning only $7 million and some couch-cushion change this season, no one is going to fund a Kickstarter campaign to keep him out of the poor house. Yet it's hard to begrudge a man for wanting to earn an extra $5 million, which he believes he is owed. 

I mean, it isn't like the Saints are struggling for cash. 

More likely, however, is that the Saints will do their level-best to sign Graham to a long-term deal, which will also mean more money and security for the wide re—oops, I mean tight end. The two sides will part ways at the negotiating table and continue to earn scads of money for years to come. 

On the field, the coaching staff will continue to use Graham far more like most coaches use a wide receiver, and the term tight end won't be solidified any more in common usage than it has been for quite some time.

We'll be right back here, probably soon, wondering what someone who's never played the game will decide a different positional term means. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

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