Sports Outside the Beltway

NFL’s Meaningless Contracts Good for the Game?

AP sportwriter Tim Dahlberg thinks the lack of guaranteed contracts in the NFL has been a major factor in making it the premier American sports league.

This isn’t baseball, where George Steinbrenner ate Kevin Brown’s $16 million salary the last couple years, and has to pay Randy Johnson even more until he collects Social Security.

Almost left out in the tributes to the departing Paul Tagliabue last week was the fact that he has – with help from the players’ association – kept in place a system that rewards performance and comes close to forcing players to actually play for pay. Signing bonuses may be huge, but with no guaranteed contracts there’s rarely any complacency among players. The system, tied together with a salary cap, works, unlike baseball’s dysfunctional labor division.

Tagliabue said at the Super Bowl this year that the philosophy on guaranteed contracts goes back to the founders of the league, who believed that a significant portion of pay should be for performance. “Guaranteed contracts, within the context of a salary cap, takes it away from a player who is playing and gives it to a player who is not playing,” Tagliabue said.

Players have generally gone along with that, often at a high price to those unfortunate enough to suffer career-ending injuries or whose performances, like Allen’s, were just declining. Many others, though, have made it up on the other end with signing bonuses that Tagliabue estimates make up half the league’s $3.4 billion in annual player costs. And it’s hard to argue when the amount of money each team can spend on players has gone up $35 million in the last five years.

Quite right. I would like to see some sort of insurance system put in place to take care of players who suffer career ending injuries. But, as a general matter, the system works.

As Dahlberg notes, it allows the Cowboys to take a gamble on Terrell Owens–and thus allows Owens another chance, too. While it would be expensive to cut him after one year if he fails to behave, it will be manageable. Under a baseball-style system, it would simply have been idiotic to risk $25 million on such a volatile player.

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