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.
3. No minimum player salary: Goodell warns that many players could earn "substantially less" than today's minimums. Again, as a fan, I don't care. If anything, lower minimum salaries might produce better games. Football requires maximum effort and minimal regard for one's safety. That is, hunger. And who plays the hungriest? Athletes angling for a bigger payday.
4-5. No standard guarantee to compensate players who suffer season-or-career-ending injuries AND no league-wide agreements on benefits: I'm lumping these together because they're basically the same thing. Thing is, pro football players and their families aren't particularly happy with their current level of league-funded health care, especially following retirement. Perhaps Goodell's Apocalypto would allow them to hash out better individual deals. If not, I can't say I'd be ecstatic to see NFLers dropped into the same free-market, grab-what-you-can, boo-hoo-if-you're-seriously-sick, see-you-in-personal-bankruptcy-court health care coverage pool the rest of America swims in every day. But I wouldn't turn off the television on Sundays, either.
(Hypothetical question: if the Buffalo Bills ended up moving to Toronto full-time, would Canada's health care system give them a competitive advantage in terms of wooing players?)
6. No limits on free agency: Uh-oh. No limits. Total anarchy! Inmates running the asylum! Goodell forebodingly writes, "players and agents would team up to direct top players to a handful of elite teams. Other teams, perpetually out of the running for the playoffs, would serve essentially as farm teams for the elites."
First: players and agents across sports—and in Hollywood, for that matter—do not team up to direct top talent to a select handful of elite buyers. By and large, they team up to secure the largest payday. Particularly in football, where careers are short and money isn't guaranteed. Then-NFL Defensive Player of the Year Albert Haynesworth didn't sign with Washington in 2009 because the 8-8 club was "elite." He signed because the Redskins handed him a gaze-upon-me-and-despair $100 million contract, complete with a $43 million signing bonus.
Of course, Washington's Haynesworth experiment didn't exactly work out as planned—ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please note Exhibit A—which brings me to the next point: Megabuck player acquisitions don't ensure on-field success. They don't even ensure a decent team. Under Isiah Thomas, the New York Knicks had the NBA's highest payroll. The club was an unmitigated, mishmashed disaster, a national laughingstock. In pro football, the Redskins annually are one of the biggest offseason winners—in terms of headlines generated and dollars appropriated—and one of the regular season's biggest disappointments.
By contrast, the NFL's current gold standard—the New England Patriots—began their dynastic run in 2001 by signing a dozen-plus unheralded, mid-level free agents. Non-elite team signs non-top players, wins Super Bowl. Does Goodell pay attention to his own league?
Also worth remembering: fans like star-studded, big-market glamour teams. They're polarizing. They attract love 'em, hate 'em attention. (See the Patriots, the Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat). Moreover, star player movement also can be good for league business. (Again, see the Heat). Forget his own league; does Goodell pay attention to SportsCenter?
7. No league-wide rule limiting the length of training camp or required off-season workout obligations: I can only assume this one isn't directed at football fans, but rather at players who would prefer to spend their off-seasons bow hunting. On the other hand, isn't Brett Favre finally retired?
8. No league-wide testing program for drugs of abuse or performance-enhancing drugs: Ah ha ha ha ha ha. Ha. Ha.
As Goodell ominously puts it, "each club could have their own program—or not." Or not? You mean athletes who get mysteriously bigger, stronger, faster and more ripped year after year will no longer be subject to what is inarguably and indisputably the toughest performance-enhancing drug-policing program ever devised in sports?
Yes, it's truly hard to imagine what a juiced-up NFL would look like. As a football fan, I'm sure I'd turn away in sheer disgust. The same way Americans have stopped watching baseball.
All in all, this the doomsday scenario Goodell envisions: a league where the overblown, mostly unhelpful college draft is replaced by a fairer, more entertaining scramble; where championship competitiveness among clubs remains both possible and probable; where steroid use continues to be a wink-and-a-nod affair, only slightly less dishonest; and where an actual free market replaces a collusive, odious monopoly.
And I'm supposed to be scared? To paraphrase Michael Stipe: a player victory in the NFL's ongoing labor-management battle just may prove to be the end of pro football as we know it. But I feel fine.