The Los Angeles Dodgers signed pitcher Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million contract four years ago. Brown has won just 44 games for the team and spent most of last season on the disabled list. But even if the Dodgers release him, he is guaranteed to collect the $45 million remaining on his contract regardless of whether he throws another pitch.
Washington Redskins running back Stephen Davis is in the first year of a five-year, $31.5 million contract that was renegotiated during the offseason. The Redskins are considering releasing him after this season and if they do, Davis would not collect a cent of the $26 million left on the current contract.
Brown and Davis reflect the different economic conditions players experience because of the approaches their unions take with the leagues. Major League Baseball and its players have an adversarial relationship and recently completed a season marred by the threat of a players' strike that was partly blamed for a sharp drop in television ratings. Baseball players have both financial security and high salaries, but owners say they are in dire economic straits.
NFL players and owners have a cooperative labor relationship that has helped produce 15 years of uninterrupted play and arguably the most financially successful major U.S. sports league. But the lack of guaranteed contracts, recent sparks over fines for helmet-to-helmet hits and use of over-the-counter drugs that have been banned by the league has some players beginning to question whether the relationship between the NFL Players Association and ownership is too friendly.
"Maybe we are a little too close to the league," said Ronde Barber, a cornerback with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Some guys are really concerned about fines and [helmet-to-helmet] hits. Maybe the union is doing the best they can under this system, but that's an issue on a lot of people's minds."
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA, dismisses such notions and says he sees his relationship with management as a partnership.
"What [Commissioner Paul Tagliabue] and I try to do as stewards of the game is to try to ensure that we have stability and the growth," Upshaw said. "My job is to make sure we get our fair share. I've told the players and I've told the owners the same thing. The only chance we have of not having labor peace is if either side gets greedy. For the first time the owners realize the enemy is not the union."
The football union is particularly proud of the system of signing bonuses that guarantees players receive millions in up-front cash. For instance, Davis received a $6.5 million bonus when he signed a nine-year, $90 million contract with the Redskins in 2000. NFL players on average get half of their compensation in bonuses before they put on cleats.
Including those bonuses, NFL players still have the lowest average pay among the four major sports leagues at $1.1 million per year. The league has more players than the others and it imposes limits on how much teams can spend. The average annual salary in the NBA, which also has a salary cap but has the fewest players of any major pro league, is roughly four times that of the NFL.
The NFLPA's critics include Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the MLB Players Association and the person responsible for winning many of the provisions that have become standard in professional sports collective bargaining agreements.
"They have failed their membership abysmally," Miller said of the NFLPA. "Whenever there has been a serious dispute and an attempt to take strike action, they have never been successful. You just know without looking at their agreement that any organization that's been that unsuccessful in basic struggles is not going to have decent conditions."
Most of the players in other major professional sports sign no-cut contracts that guarantee that the team will pay them for the full length of the deal, while the vast majority of NFL players can be fired. Players with at least two seasons are entitled to severance pay, which increases with each year of service. Injured players are entitled to full pay for the season in which they are hurt, plus up to $250,000 for the next year.
Players also receive a benefits package that the union said is worth more than $200,000 annually per athlete.
NFL players generally appear reluctant to follow the confrontational path of baseball and its union, which together have produced eight work stoppages since 1972. Some labor figures, such as former NFLPA executive director Ed Garvey, assert that the football players' lifestyle and wealth, as well as a star system that discourages unity between the rich and less-rich, make it difficult to mount a successful strike against the owners.
"If these guys are making a million a year, they aren't going to be singing 'Solidarity Forever' on their way into the locker room," Garvey said. He and others believe more friction between the union and league could produce more benefits for players, and that it is up to union leaders to lead the way.
Upshaw said the union has made huge strides through court decisions and through difficult, behind-the-scenes negotiations with the league.
"We've had ugly, nasty clashes" with owners, said Upshaw, who has led the union since 1983 and earns about $2 million a year. "We've had lockouts. We've had strikes. We've done everything everyone else does. We still do. It's just not as public as it might have been at one time. . . . To me, the test is, how much do we get of the revenues we generate? In 1987 we were getting 30 percent of the revenues and the owners were getting 70. Now we're getting two-thirds and they are getting a third. For us to do what we've been able to do has just been unbelievable."
Although exact figures are difficult to come by, only NHL players appear to capture a greater share of league revenues.
The NFLPA was formed in 1970, a product of the merger of the American Football League and National Football League player unions. Four work stoppages followed during the next decade, most of which ended unsuccessfully for the players. In 1982, however, the players won guarantees on the amount of total league revenues they would receive. The NFLPA's most recent strike came in 1987, when players demanded free agency, which gives them the right to sell their services to the highest bidder.
The walkout ended after four weeks when players began crossing picket lines, forcing the union to capitulate and delaying free agency until a landmark 1993 court decision involving New York Jets running back Freeman McNeil. Both sides have struck a bargain allowing players to become free agents after four seasons, balanced by a league-imposed salary cap (now at around $82 million per team) that helps curb owners' spending impulses.
Tagliabue and Upshaw have quietly renewed the labor contract three times since 1993, with a pact approved last year that is set to expire in 2007. The contract extensions have enabled the league to avoid the negative publicity and fan disillusionment that have accompanied work stoppages in the other three major sports league over the past decade. The result has been predictable labor peace, lucrative national television contracts and arguably the most profitable league in sports. Total league revenue has climbed from less than $1 billion to almost $5 billion in the past decade, according to the NFL.
"The fact that fans know that the games will be played and there will be no interruption means that the focus is on the action on the field," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented stars such as former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith.
But at what price to the players?
The big concession has been the salary cap, which also acts as a deterrent to no-cut contracts. Upshaw calls it a "restriction" but adds that it also guarantees NFL players a strict percentage of total revenues. The NBA players are the only other union that has agreed to a salary cap, but the overall player share goes a lot further because there are about 400 NBA players dividing roughly $1.5 billion compared to about 1,900 NFL players dividing about $2.6 billion. Baseball and hockey players have some forms of wage control, but they have fiercely resisted salary caps because they believe it limits their ability to get top dollar for their services.
"If you asked any player, 'If you could change anything, what would it be?' they'd say we want to have guaranteed contracts. I've made proposals along those lines, and we haven't been able to do it," Upshaw said.
He believes that the route to further gains for players lies with the spirit of cooperation the union has forged with the league, which is in contrast to the confrontational approach that has historically characterized Garvey's tenure at the union as well as much of other labor-management relations.
"There's no adversarial relationship, nor should there be," said Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell.
Former Dallas running back Calvin Hill, who now serves as a consultant to the Cowboys, said he senses that the union is losing credibility with its members.
"Players tell me [the union] is not interested in helping them, and that's not right," said Hill. "The union should be in an advocacy role on safety, drug testing and not just in a percentage of the gross. There are still a whole host of issues they've got to be more aggressive on."
Although the other major sports leagues have both free agency and guaranteed contracts, Tampa Bay defensive lineman Anthony McFarland is worried that the NFL can't do both.
"Guaranteed money is a catch-22," said McFarland. "If we say we want guaranteed money, the owners talk about no free agency, which no one wants to give up. It would be nice to have it, but we also have to be realistic. I don't see us as being too cozy with [the league]. There has to be a working relationship and over the last few years, we've had a very good working relationship with them. I have no complaints."
Some players have complained that the league is not doing enough to protect them from the hefty fines -- some reaching $75,000 -- that have been levied in recent weeks because of dangerous, "helmet-to-helmet" tackles. Such tackles, in which the defensive player puts his head down when hitting the player, can result in injuries to both parties. Other players want the union to be more responsive to fines and suspensions that have been levied for taking ephedrine, a banned stimulant that is found in many over-the-counter products.
Last year's NFL contract extension called for gradually increasing the players' share of total league revenues by a few percentage points over the course of the contract, which probably will amount to more than $200 million over the next several years, according to Richard Berthelsen, the NFLPA general counsel. The players also won new health benefits for the families of retired veterans, a $65,000 owner contribution into an annuity account and a new prescription drug card program that players' wives wanted.
"The league wants to make money, the players want to make money, the teams want to make money," said Sam Shade, a strong safety with the Redskins and a former union player representative with Cincinnati. "The union and the league make decisions together, and I don't think that's bad. Some guys are happy with it, some guys are not."
Miller said the notion that the football players have a say in operations is illusory.
"The football players operate as if they were part of management, when they are not even poor stepchildren," Miller said. "They give lip service to the health of the industry in return for getting some crumbs."
Quinn Mills, who teaches at Harvard Business School and has written a respected text on labor-management relations, hails Upshaw's approach because "the union should be concerned about the long-term health of the industry and the employer should be concerned about the fair treatment, welfare and economic improvement of players and workers."
The United Electrical Workers, one of the more militant unions in the nation, believes that workers get the best results when the sides are clearly drawn.
"It's the long-held belief of our union that an adversarial relationship is almost inevitable when employers and workers come together to discuss their interests," said Bob Kingsley, director of organizations for the 35,000-member group. "We have a clear view in which there is a 'them' and there is an 'us.' And it is in the clash of the differing interests that a resolution is found that, from our perspective, justice can be achieved."
Limited to a 53-man roster and an $82 million payroll cap per team, NFL owners want the ability to hire and fire players at will without being locked into a contract that forces them to continue to pay a player who is injured or not performing. (Vested injured players are eligible for disability.) Thus, one-quarter to one-third of team rosters turn over every year.
"This is not a factory job where you get paid by seniority and longevity," said Harold Henderson, NFL executive vice president for labor relations. "This is a meritocracy, where you get paid for performance. Every team has to make decisions on how they want to spend their money. There are no sinecures in professional sports."
Garvey said the union has allowed a star system to develop, which has failed the majority of players because they don't get the big money.
"There should not be so much of a salary gap between the quarterback and the center," Garvey said. "Football is the ultimate team sport. The quarterback can't do anything unless the big fat guy up front does the blocking."