It’s about the money, sure. Ramsey didn’t arrive at training camp in July in a fake Brink’s truck because he wished for an early Halloween. But freedom of choice matters just as much as these players challenge a system that restricts both the opportunity to maximize their worth and the flexibility to reach free agency in a reasonable amount of time.
Eight years ago, to end an ugly, 132-day lockout, the owners and players finally reached a deal on a collective bargaining agreement that included a rookie wage scale. No more Sam Bradford receiving $50 million guaranteed before taking an NFL snap. No more ridiculously long training camp holdouts for rookies. No more fear that a high draft pick actually could complicate a rebuilding effort.
There was little opposition, in theory, to this change. Owners hated paying so much money for unproven talent. Veteran players hated rookies hogging money that could be redirected to them. Fans hated it, too, because complaining about the salaries of athletes, young or old, is an underrated pastime.
But over the past eight years, it has become clear that the owners scored a major victory with the rookie wage scale.
Under a wage-scale system that locked its emerging players into long contracts — first-round picks sign five-year deals, the final season being a team option; after the first round, players are given four-year deals — players who reach elite status quickly can be underpaid by tens of millions of dollars. The change represents a stunning overcorrection, and that’s why Ezekiel Elliott held out despite having two years left on his rookie deal. That’s why Gordon is staying away from the Los Angeles Chargers. That’s why Jadeveon Clowney refused to sign the franchise tender until he was traded from Houston to Seattle. In 2018, Le’Veon Bell sat out the season partly in protest of this system, and it led Khalil Mack to be traded from Oakland to Chicago. And while Ramsey is a complicated and mercurial cornerback who had a nasty sideline confrontation with Coach Doug Marrone during a loss to the Texans in Week 2, compensation is at the core of his discontent.
Typically, major contract disputes in professional sports are reserved for more established players. Now, players enter the NFL feeling like they need to hurry up and get theirs.
To illustrate the dramatic change, in the last year of the old system, Bradford signed a six-year, $86 million deal after being selected first in the 2010 draft. He wound up receiving about $78 million of that contract despite playing in just 63 of 96 games and tearing the ACL in his left knee twice.
Cam Newton was chosen first in 2011. After the lockout, under the new CBA, he was eligible for a four-year, $22 million deal. Including his fifth-year option, he made a little less than $37 million in his first contract. During that deal, Newton led the Carolina Panthers to three playoff appearances, won an MVP award and went to the Super Bowl. As an almost immediate franchise player, he was a steal.
Although Newton received a monster second contract, he’s also now struggling with injuries at 30, which could shorten the back end of his career. It’s possible his career might be described thusly, at least in terms of earning: underpaid, properly paid, compensation potential diminished because of injury. You will look at his earnings and mock him with a boohoo. And, yes, Newton understands the violent and fleeting nature of his profession.
But when you get past the sticker shock and focus strictly on salary as it relates to performance and the franchise’s revenue, there is a fundamental unfairness to the rookie wage scale as it relates to NFL business. And Newton is a player who has had it quite good compared with a running back such as Gordon. He is holding out for one decent payday in a league that would rather use up a running back and toss him aside. It’s especially cruel for a first-round tailback to have to play on a five-year contract while his mileage is scrutinized and his productivity is underappreciated.
The owners and players are at work on a new collective bargaining agreement because the current one expires after next season. But when I asked multiple players involved with the union about issues with the rookie wage scale, they acknowledged the problem. A few of them even alluded to frustration they felt when they had outperformed their deals. But none of them anticipated fixing that system would be a major point of negotiation. Naturally, older players lead the union, and this is a blind spot for them.
In a league with 1,696 players on active rosters, there are too many issues to consider, and the kids have to wait in line. It’s so hard for the players to get a CBA universally praised as favorable because they’re fighting for so much, and they’re going against a streamlined group of 32 owners who don’t budge on anything. So unhappy standouts on rookie deals are left to take matters into their own hands. They see what NBA players are doing. They’re trying to follow the example, albeit in a vastly different league.
They want their money, or they want to go elsewhere. To an NFL team, their contracts are so reasonable that trade partners will surrender major assets to receive inexpensive elite players. In that sense, the trade market often seems like a solution for all parties.
The problem, though: Is there such a thing as a good deal when you’re trading Ramsey, who is the best cornerback in the game at 24?
Jacksonville can move on from Ramsey, the trash-talking headache, because his deal makes him movable. The Jaguars can’t move on from Ramsey, the generational talent, without feeling as if it left a lot of good football on the table.
Fairness in the era of the rookie wage scale: initial shared joy, mutual discontent, premature farewell. It’s just another way that NFL stands for Not For Long.
This time, at least the players have some sway. They’re going to keep pushing the boundaries, too. The rebellion has only begun.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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