Blue-collar workers toiling on assembly lines and elsewhere have little in common with National Football League players. So it’s no surprise that few tears have been shed over the labor strife which engulfed the NFL for the last several months. Most of the angst understandably has been over the concern that games could be missed on Sundays this fall. Many viewed this dispute as one between overpaid millionaires (the players) and greedy billionaires (the team owners).
But now that a new collective bargaining agreement appears ready to be ratified, it is worth noting that while football long ago eclipsed baseball as the nation’s most popular sport, its players enjoy the least employment rights of those in the four major professional team sports.
A baseball or basketball player who signs a six-year contract and then suffers a career-threatening knee injury during a game will receive every cent of that deal whether he ultimately returns or not. If a player in those sports loses his effectiveness and no longer competes at the all-star level for which he is compensated, the money will still pour into his bank account for the remainder of his contract.
In contrast, NFL players stand alone in professional sports with one-way contracts that are not guaranteed. A five-year, $50-million contract is certainly nothing to sneeze at. But it binds only the player, not the team. For instance, if the player is injured or brings less star power than advertised in year one, the team is free to release him and owes him no compensation beyond that first season.
Oftentimes, teams will come to players and ask them to renegotiate their already-signed contracts significantly downward. If they agree, their jobs will continue. If not, the team will wash its hands of the player.
Now the more sophisticated football fans are surely thinking about the lucrative signing bonuses NFL players receive. Agents insist that player X receive say $10-to-$12 million up front to guard against the possibility of a premature termination of the contract. It’s certainly not bad money if you can get it. Those bonuses, however, tend to go to the players at the top of the sport. So Peyton Manning or Tom Brady can easily command them, but reserve offensive and defensive tackles will not.
The NFL also stands alone with the generally poor care of its retired players from the past. A disproportionate number, like the recently-deceased Baltimore Colts tight-end John Mackey, have suffered or still suffer from dementia. Others are afflicted with life-long disabilities and impairments stemming from the violent nature of a game which involves high-speed collisions on every play.
And the average career of an NFL player lasts only four years. That’s significant because the rookie wage-scale along with the amount of guaranteed money they can receive in the new collective bargaining agreement will be going down. At the same time, players must wait at least four years to gain their free agency and a pay day which statistics show the majority of them will never reach.
Make no mistake: many red-blooded American workers would do anything to have the ability to play in the NFL and have those problems. After all, it’s not to be confused with wondering if your company will be in business at the end of the week or how the mortgage will be met.
Still, for the nation’s most popular and profitable sport, where most teams sell out all of their home games, it is notable that the players fall well behind their baseball counterparts when it comes to the security of their contracts and longterm benefits. And that’s something which will not be altered by the new labor agreement.
About the Author: David Weisenfeld served as U.S. Supreme Court correspondent for LAWCAST from 1998 through June 2011. During that time, he covered every employment law case heard by the Court, and also wrote and co-anchored the company’s employment law newscasts. In addition, his work has appeared in the American Bar Association’s Supreme Court Preview magazine.