NFL Lockout: Why the Players' Argument About Career Length Fails to Measure Up

Peter BukowskiSenior Analyst IApril 26, 2011

Roger Goodell (left) and Jerry Jones aren't drumming up any sympathy from the players or the fans
Roger Goodell (left) and Jerry Jones aren't drumming up any sympathy from the players or the fansHannah Foslien/Getty Images

The whining needs to stop. With Twitter, an athlete can make his feelings heard without the editing of a public relations expert or an agent–who, in many cases, are one in the same. 

That accessibility is a double-edged sword for the NFL labor disagreement, because a plethora of players have decided to run their mouths and remove the credibility of their bargaining position.

One player tweeted that if the NFL fails so, too, will the U.S. economy.

Let's not pretend like this is more than what it is–a bunch of rich old men paying a bunch of rich young men to beat the hell out of each other.

When the average person graduates high school and begins to plan a life, one's career tends to be the focal point of that planning. We look at college or look for work.

That's first and foremost.

We hope for a career that would be fulfilling, but often times–and particularly in the current sluggish economic times–we have to look for jobs just to pay the bills.

No, the NFL players aren't making the Latrell Sprewell argument, but they are insisting that player safety is directly tied to contract length and compensation. Furthermore, they claim the current, as well as any newly-proposed collective bargaining agreement, doesn't meet their apparent need. 

Certainly, we can agree that the NFL can't purport to be trying to protect players, then move to lengthen the season.

But slavery Adrian Peterson? Give me a break.

Roger Goodell continued his NFL propaganda train following a Minneapolis judge's ruling that the lockout was to be lifted, offering his concerns over what would happen if player demands are met.  

The list of 'what if's' make this editorial somewhat self-indulgent and in many ways, simply superfluous, since none of things he seems to threaten are imminent.

Nate Jackson responded via Deadspin to the commissioner and here is where this whole scenario–admittedly over my head from a legal standpoint–comes back to reality. 

Jackson, a former player, is upset that Goodell and the NFL has been disingenuous about the average length of an NFL career and, as a result, the demands of the owners to shorten contracts and reel in player salaries isn't fair.

He's also apparently shocked and appalled that an NFL team would have the audacity to replace one player with another who is either cheaper or more competent at doing the job. 

I guess he thought the NFL was the only place where that happened.

But let's take Jackson's number for argument's sake. He claims the average length of an NFL career is 3.5 years.

In 2010, the rookie wage minimum was $325,000. We could stop right there. There are literally tens of thousands of people who won't make $325,000 in their lifetime and most of those rookie minimum players don't even get on the field.

By year two, players are to make at least $400,000, with a raise to $475,000 for year three. Remember, these are minimum figures and in three years–less than Jackson's average–the player has accumulated $1.2 million in salary.

Jackson wails and gnashes his teeth about the drama over not knowing whether or not he would have a job and lashes out at the commissioner for presenting false data, neither of which truly support his own assertions.

Yet in less than an average career–yes, career–an NFL player will make, at minimum, $1.2 million.

According to U.S. Census data released in 2010, the average American with a high school degree makes $1.2 million in a lifetime. 

I'll repeat that–a lifetime. Imagine earning a lifetime wage in three years. For most of us, that's all it is–an imaginary concept, a dream.  

Jackson insists that three years isn't a career, but that's exactly what it is. If NFL players save their money like any other average American, they can live a wonderful life on $1.2 million, even starting in their late 20's or early 30's and accounting for taxes.

I can hear Jackson yelling at me now, "But I could have a serious injury, blow out my knee, or get a concussion."

Construction workers face the same issues and they don't make $400,000 a year–although union bosses would certainly love to change that. They don't even make $40,000 a year in most cases and many of their corporate financiers are making profits that aren't dissimilar on a relative basis to NFL owners and, in some cases, are probably greater (more on this later).

Pro athletes want to get their fair stake in the action. That's understandable. I believe in the free market as well. 

Football players, more than any other professional athlete, assume tremendous risk to their well being contributing to a league worth billions. If you talk to an NFL player from the "good old days" many can barely walk, have trouble speaking and deal with early onset of neurological diseases like dementia.

Owners, on the other hand, assume no physical risk, although they assume the entirety of the financial risk–except, of course, with new stadiums which are often funded by public dollars. Yet it's the owners who pocket the profits, which they pay back to the players.

On the face, it may seem like an inequitable system and to some degree, it is. However, it's no different than any other labor system. The bosses make money by risking money, while the laborers do the grunt work, assume the physical risk and reap little of the financial rewards.

Also, players of the 1960's and 1970's played longer and for considerably less money. The NFL and AFL weren't nearly the lucrative businesses they are now and we had no idea about the risks of things like concussions.

That being said, to pretend like the owners today are making hundreds of millions a season while players are getting pennies from the pot is to simply not be paying attention.

Let's return to our blue collar example. To build that skyscaper, I get paid $20 an hour if I'm lucky. To make enough money to retire, I will have to work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, for 29 years injury-free to make my $1.2 million.

NFL players, many of whom don't even play and thus assume little to no risk, can make enough money to retire  in less time than it takes to graduate from college.

That money is theirs, no questions asked. They're not asked to re-invest in the team or take on any new financial risk.

There's the key difference. I take on much higher risk building skyscrapers over the course of my 30 year career–during which, developers will make hundreds of millions just like the NFL–to make the same as an NFL player who makes that money in just a few years. 

Nate Jackson, for example, in six seasons with the Denver Broncos, made $2,902,647, according to a USAToday database. He started a grand total of four games, caught 27 passes and scored only twice. 

As a construction worker, I'd have to work 70 years to make Nate Jackson money. Working the right jobs, there's no question my commercial real estate tycoon bosses (Donald Trump?) could make six years of NFL revenue in 70 years. 

It's also highly likely I was much more integral in those buildings' successful completion than Nate Jackson was to the Broncos generation of revenue.

It's not like people were rushing out to buy Nate Jackson jerseys.

More to the point, in 2006, in the middle of Jackson's tenure, Forbes rated the Broncos as the sixth most valuable franchise in the NFL, with annual revenues of $207 million. They had $115 million in player costs, which seems like the rest should just be profit.

However, that same year, the Broncos had the eighth highest debt value of any team at 21 percent. In fact, owner Patrick Bowlen is still $150 million in the hole on the Broncos stadium.

Stadiums are an investment that will almost assuredly generate revenue, especially in a place like Denver, where the fans are rabidly loyal.

Players, on the other hand, are the worst investment in the industry.

JaMarcus Russell was paid $36.4 million by the Oakland Raiders and holds the single season record for lowest passer rating ever by a quarterback who played a full season.

That type of risky spending is the same kind of unfettered (and union driven) financial burden that blew up the housing market and has bankrupt the United States government...and that's not hyperbole.

Furthermore, it's a risk the NFL simply has to assume, because rookie contracts have become so out of control. A losing team could have even more damage by having to pay a top pick $40 million.

Shortening the length of guaranteed contracts and fixing the rookie pay scale wouldn't prevent owners from overpaying older veterans, but it would at least be a start to create a system where players are paid fairly and the owners are able to make the financial investments which move the game forward, making it better for fans. 

If players don't want to reap the tremendous benefits of football, they can go build skyscrapers.


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