Sports Nut

The Awfulness of NFL Contracts and Football’s Culture of Disposability

Mr. Toe:

From a financial standpoint, nobody I know thinks either the Patriots or Adam Vinatieri acted in anything but their own best interests. The team determined that an aging placekicker was worth only a certain amount of money, and Vinatieri got a Godfather offer out of Indianapolis where, as you point out, he can probably kick indoors until he’s 50. The only outstanding question here—aside from the sentimental affection for Vinatieri—is whether or not New England did the right thing by its team competitively, and that will remain open until Stephen Gostkowski shows more consistency than he has so far, which he’d better start doing this Sunday against the Jets, or the phone’s going to be ringing in the Gramatica family room by Monday morning.

The Kabuki nature of the NFL contract has stuck in my craw for a very long time. I don’t want to get all IWW on you here, but if there’s one sport in which guaranteed money seems like a moral necessity, it’s the NFL. Part of it, of course, is the fault of the players themselves. They have been ill-served through the years by their union. First, it bargained away real free agency early in the 1980s. The union finally broke after striking in 1987, when the owners determined to engage in the greatest act of consumer fraud in the history of professional sports: the use of scab players in NFL uniforms, which not only vividly demonstrated the contempt the NFL holds for its audience, which largely cheered this demonstration of public charlatanism, but also provided us with a really bad Keanu Reeves movie a few years down the line. And, there’s a telling anecdote in Michael MacCambridge’s magisterial history of the league in which a pie-in-the-sky plan for One Big Union among professional athletes falls apart back in the 1970s because, as one of its organizers moans, “Football players all think like owners.” This most assuredly includes Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFLPA. Bryant Gumbel’s comments a while back—he said that outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue should show the next guy “where he keeps Gene Upshaw’s leash”—may have been graceless, but they were not wholly untrue.

The players exist, as you say, in a culture of disposability. They have the shortest average careers of any professional athletes. They regularly play with injuries that would put the average workingperson in the hospital. After their careers end, they are subject to a staggering array of physical and psychological consequences against which many of them are insufficiently prepared. And yet, the agreements they sign during their playing days are, in many important ways, worthless. Nothing said by team management about the size and length of a contract is ever the truth, and the players know this. Which is what made the case of Deion Branch instructive. The Patriots wide receiver signed a deal, and then he got a lot better. He picked up a Super Bowl MVP trophy two years ago, and he became the most important cog in the New England passing game not wearing No. 12. Elsewhere, the market for receivers with half of his credentials went up. Branch (and his agent) determined that they would get the deal they wanted from the Patriots or they would, as Bill Parcells likes to say, “shoot their way out of town.”

In truth, Branch was left with very few options. Those people who waxed profound on “living up to the deal he signed” misapprehend the fact that Branch was operating in a system in which contracts do not ever mean what they say, especially as the player gets older. In fact, players assume that the back-end money in the deal doesn’t really exist at all. They’ll be cut or moved or otherwise aced out of it in ways that are perfectly legitimate within the system under which the NFL operates. Branch didn’t respect his contract because, in practice, there were parts of it unworthy of respect.

All football players are in some ways constantly in rebellion against the teams for which they play. The team makes the player play when he shouldn’t and then ruthlessly disposes of him when the consequences of that coercion become obvious on the field. One of the great diplomatic triumphs Tom Brady has is that he has managed to become the public face of the Patriots without becoming perceived as a management mouthpiece among his primary constituency in the locker room. He made his displeasure quite plain when Lawyer Milloy was dispatched a few years ago. And when the team (by his lights) frittered away Branch and David Givens before this season, it did not escape his notice that the team did not spend the money as wisely as it could to replace them. Still, though, they win. And, while management’s cold-eyed attitude and New England’s cold-assed climate are never going to make Gillette Stadium a hot spot for the young, Sun Belt-dazzled superstar, it has become a desirable destination for older players looking for The Ring. Which is why Junior Seau ended his 22-second retirement and is now doing his sack-dancing in Foxboro. Winning is still fun. Sometimes, it’s the only fun at all.

1-2-3, defense!