A point-by-point rebuttal of the Wall Street Journal op-ed where he predicted Armageddon if the players win out in the league's labor dispute
Be afraid, professional football fans. Be very afraid. Such is the message from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who in a recent Wall Street Journal editorial warns that the sport you know and love is about to set course for the center of the sun.
The reason? On Monday, U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson ordered an immediate end to an owner-imposed lockout of the league's players, a ruling that: (a) gives the players a major victory in an ongoing, contentious battle over how to divide a $9 billion pie; (b) leaves the NFL vulnerable to antitrust litigation, including a lawsuit already filed on behalf of Tom Brady, Petyon Manning, and eight other players.
The second point haunts Goodell's piece, which presents two visions of pro football's future. One, sunshine and rainbows. The other, not so much. In the first vision, owners and players uphold the collectively bargained status quo and continue on their merry, prosperous way. (Never mind that players wanted to keep on keepin' on, while owners felt screwed by the NFL's previous CBA and initiated a lockout to leverage a bigger cut of league profits). In the second, league-wide rules related to terms of player employment—the draft, the salary cap, free agency, etc.—no longer apply, overturning the "carefully constructed system of competitive balance that makes NFL games and championship races so unpredictable and exciting." In short, pro football as The Day After Tomorrow.
Me? I'll take Armageddon.
Where Goodell sees disaster, I see opportunity; where he sees dusk, I see dawn. In his op-ed, the commissioner lists eight harmful consequences of a player court victory and subsequent NFL new world order. As a fan, I disagree with each. Here's why:
1. No draft: The. Horror. You mean I won't be subject to wall-to-wall prime-time television coverage, guessing-game mock drafts numbered and released like incremental software updates and breathless, year 'round reporting and speculation over what essentially amounts to writing the names of college football players on index cards, with the whole shebang essentially worthless the moment the draft concludes, since, you know, the actual professional football in question has yet to be played? Really?
(Note: briar patch protest reference goes here).
Blunt force hype and overkill coverage aside, there are better reasons to embrace a draft-free future. For one, the draft exists primarily to ensure competitive balance. Only it doesn't always do so. In theory, crummy teams are given first crack at incoming college players, a process that should improve said clubs over time. In practice, however, the draft is a crapshoot, what pigskin number-cruncher Doug Drinen of Pro-Football-Reference.com calls a "luckocracy." Prime picks are often busts; superstars are drafted late or not at all; a paper by two University of Chicago economists argues that in the current salary-capped, signing bonus-heavy system, high first-round picks are a liability compared to later first-and-second-rounders.
To put things another way: over the last decade, has the draft turned the New England Patriots into an also-ran? Has it made the Cincinnati Bengals a powerhouse?
Indeed, the NFL draft arguably makes bad teams worse by providing inept management the opportunity to invest greater sums into overrated college players ... who then are given multiple pro seasons to prove themselves and said management unworthy. Meanwhile, fans suffer—see San Francisco's Alex Smith, or the Detroit Lions under Matt Millen—and painfully wait for next year's draft, the way Charlie Brown waits for Lucy to re-tee the football.
A draft-free NFL, on the other hand, would be fairer to incoming players, both financially and in terms of professional opportunity. Salaries would be set by the highest bidder. Athletes could choose the situation that gives them the best chance to succeed. Suppose you're a strong-armed but immobile quarterback: do you really want to sign with a club that has a porous offensive line, the better to spend your rookie season getting tenderized like an old steak? Besides, teams still would be rewarded and punished for smart and dumb scouting decisions—maybe even more so—just as anyone operating in a competitive enterprise should be.
Oh, and as for all that aforementioned media hype? Admittedly, it's pretty fun. Imagine how much more fun the NFL offseason would be without a draft. Player selection and signing could take months. Wheeling, dealing and intrigue would be multiplied and amplified. Every day would be draft day! Mel Kiper Jr. would need to be cloned. And 24/7 draft coverage would come closer to making sense.
2. No minimum team payroll: As a player, I might find this potentially disturbing. (Though perhaps not: in a salary cap-free NFL, competitive pressure could cause effective salary floors to rise). Yet as a fan? Not my concern. Mostly because I'm not signing the checks.
Two other things to note: (a) on its own, front office penny-pinching does not ensure losing or unwatchable football - this year's Tampa Bay Bucs had a near-league low $93 million payroll yet won 10 games, while the Cleveland Browns spent $137 million to win half as many; (b) even parsimonious owners have incentive to spend enough money to be competitive, because a competitive team means increased ticket sales and television ratings.