Thursday, February 22, 2007

This is All My Fault Part 1

This is Mercury Morris in 1973. The average salary for all NFL players that year was 55 thousand dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that is 15 thousand dollars less than the rookie minimum today.*


Today, The Curly R starts a two-part series looking at the confluence of money, age and health in the NFL. Over a twelve-day period from January 21 to February 2, the New York Times and Washington Post ran three pieces on the economics of football and the health of players, current and retired. Here we will tie these three pieces together and examine the politics of retirement from the world's premiere professional sporting league.


Part 1: The Pie Gets Bigger Every Year
Part 2: Enjoy it While You Can
Postscript: The Debate: Retired players at Hogs Haven
Epilogue: Too Little, Too Late by Brandon


I'm a football fan, plain and simple. Football has been a part of my life since at least 1974 when we moved to Dale City Virginia and I sat at the foot of my Naval Aviator father's dingey old yellow recliner, can of Budweiser in his hand, watching George Allen (not former Senator Noose-and-Boots, his father), Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer drive the Redskins into the playoffs when I was in kindergarten. Remember newspaper kites at the elementary school? Good times, dad.

And I'm not alone. Football is the undisputed number one professional sport in the US. Harris Interactive found in 2005 (the latest year for which I could find a reputable poll) that football had a two to one lead over baseball, and a three to one lead over auto racing among respondents that indicated at least one favorite sport. That 2005 poll represented a widening of the gap over the same 2004 poll.

Football is popular and getting popularer and the more popularer the more money in the picture and the more money in the picture the more hands trying hard to grab it.

Here (TimesSelect) we have today's players, getting bigger and delivering harder hits even in a more restrictive rules environment. It's a violent game and the average career lasts less than four seasons. Players eternally want to make arguments for greater salaries to offset the longterm wear and tear on their bodies and the risk that one injury is all that separates them from being a guy looking for a real job, possibly after months or years of rehabilitation. I remember when Emmitt Smith held out of Cowboys camp in 1993 (the Cowboys went 0-2 without him to start the season), the argument he and his agent were making is that yes, running back is a special position because feature backs have shorter careers than their skill position counterparts and therefore should be paid higher. He got his money and the Cowboys got another Super Bowl trophy.

So the players are keenly aware of the economics of the game. Periodically we read about how players are unhappy with Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), because what some see as 'labor peace,' others see as management still with the upper hand, profiting on the players' backs despite constant poor-mouthing about this and that franchise losing money every year. Applying laws of economics, there is more money to be made, if each owner would increase ticket prices until none of the teams could sell more than one stadium's worth of seats at time. Although it's money the owners are quote "losing," it's also excess cash the owners are reaping in the form of parking and concessions, none of which goes to the players.

Empirically we read every few years about how the TV contracts have gotten too expensive. Remember when NBC bowed out after the 1997 season and their big idea was XFL in 2001? How NBC decried the soaring cost of rights in 1998 but then was sure as hell back in the game seven years later, realizing that losing money on football is a time-honored network tradition and that the markets for beer, boobs and new cars subsidize the losses quite nicely through advertisements. The fact is that the league is making more money on TV now than ever, with a larger number of broadcast partners. The next negotiations, before the 2013 season, will bring in even more money.

Make more, want more, that's the mantra. Players get ever-larger signing bonuses to offset possible loss of income if cut before the end of the contract. Owners need new stadiums with public financing and luxe suites and ticket price increases to 'keep up with demands' of player salaries. But the owners establish the demand by paying the money.

Over on Hogs Haven, there has been an interesting discussion here and here about whether the Redskins should spend big dollars to acquire Nate Clements or Asante Samuels, the consensus best free agent prospects at cornerback, a desperate need for the Redskins this offseason. Skin Patrol and I agree: no, the Redskins should not make either of these players the highest-paid corner in the league. Why? Because Champ Bailey is the best corner in the league, maybe ever, and the quote "fact" that 'the market rises' is not reason enough to pay someone more because he was the best available at the time. That's how guys like San Francisco's Alex Smith get 49 million over seven years to be not a great starting NFL quarterback.

It's called escalation. Players indefinitely upping the ante all based on the previous year's, or even the previous day's signings. The players love it, the agents love it and the owners just can't say no to themselves or each other. Someone is going to pay Nate Clements 20 million in signing bonus and the interval of time between the signing and that team realizing it overpaid will be so short it will require an atomic physicist to measure.

But eventually, every player moves on and leaves the league. Those that are lucky draw a pension, paid with union dues. Those that are very lucky have financial security and few health problems. But for those that are unlucky and need help after football, they are finding that the very same union that fought for them as players now wishes they would just go away.


This series concludes tomorrow with Part 2, Enjoy it While You Can, a look at the treatment of retired players and what the union is or is not doing about it.

* Source for 1973 NFL salary and today's inflation equivalent here. Rookie minimum NFL salary from here.

1973 Mercury Morris Topps football card from here and here. In 1973, Mercury ran for 149 times for 954 yards on an incredible 6.4 yards per carry.