NFL Free Agency Isn't Betrayal—It's Good Business Sense

Don't blame players who leave their teams for better contracts: More than ever, franchises exploit the salary cap to discard stars, hire unknowns, and make a buck.
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AP / Elaine Thompson

In the 1930s, cash-strapped college football programs would change a player's jersey number every week so that fans would have to pay an additional two bits for a program to find out who was starting at which position—hence the expression, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard."

This year, NFL fans must feel that something similar is in the works. Pro-football teams have been cutting, trading, and acquiring new players faster than scorecards can be printed.

The most-publicized switch was Anquan Boldin, ace receiver for the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens, which last week seemed to be in the process of gutting the roster that beat the San Francisco 49ers for the championship. Boldin was unceremoniously shipped to those same 49ers for a sixth-round draft pick, who, no matter who he is, will cost Baltimore far less money. Also last week, New England receiver Wes Welker, who was second in the league in receptions last year and first in the NFL in receptions and yards over the last seven seasons, was allowed by the Patriots to sign as a free agent with the Denver Broncos.

And as of this writing, New York Jets fans are still holding their breath about losing their best player, defensive back Darrelle Revis. At the NFL winter meetings in Phoenix, Jets coach Rex Ryan said, "We don't want to part with Darrelle, but we would entertain a good offer." Translated from NFL-ese into English, this means that Revis would be wise to start checking out real estate in the Tampa Bay area. Yesterday it was reported that in the Jets were talking a trade for Tampa Bay Buccaneer draft picks.

The players often take the blame in the sports press for this turnaround—disloyalty and greed are the terms most often bandied about. Andrew Sharp summed up the hostile feeling towards the players in a satirical piece for SB Nation, "Percy Harvin and the Dog Days of NFL Free Agency": "There's no loyalty here. Just a whole bunch of teams rolling over and stars running away from home."

Disloyalty and greed may indeed by the causes, but it's not the players who are guilty; it's the team's front offices.

It's easy to see what's happening. Pro-football teams are citing tough economic times as a pretense for getting rid of high priced veterans, even though there is no indication that ticket sales were down last year or that national television contracts, the NFL's largest revenue stream, are drying up.

Baseball owners such as the Florida Marlins' Jeffrey Loria have been pulling tricks like this for years. But thanks to that insidious device called the salary cap, NFL owners have turned this practice into an art. Instituted in 1994, the salary cap dictates how much each team can spend on salaries for its players (with a few loopholes). The NFL players union, when faced with the owner's cries that free agents' salaries were too high, countered with the same arguments that baseball players had used: the free market, which the owners are always loudly endorsing when they want to move their teams to new cities, should also be allowed to establish salary levels.

The salary cap is part of why fans will find some of their favorite players wearing different colors when the new season kicks off in September. But that's less because the cap itself is constricting salaries and more because it offers cover for team owners to make tough trades in the name of profit. Anquan Boldin's sin was wanting to be paid what an All-Pro receiver on a championship team should be paid. Sorry, said the Ravens, we have no room under the salary cap—especially after signing quarterback Joe Flacco to a new $120 million contract. But according to the NFL's bylaws, they could have given Boldin a raise and had to pay a maximum $5-million fine. That would have been peanuts compared to the money the team raked in in merchandise sales and their share of the Super-Bowl DVD—or, in NFL-ese, "media rights."

But it's easier and cheaper to draft a rookie out of college for a fraction of Boldin's salary and then use the salary-cap space his departure created—according to some reports, perhaps more than $10-million after they sign a draftee—to placate other key Ravens who want to be rewarded for their part in bringing the Super Bowl to Baltimore.

Anquan Boldin's sin was wanting to be paid what he deserved. But it's easier and cheaper to draft a rookie out of college for a fraction of Boldin's salary and then use the salary-cap space to placate other Ravens who want to be rewarded for their part in the Super Bowl.

Over the past few weeks, many have praised Tom Brady for agreeing to an extension and restructuring of his contract, thus freeing up $15 million of salary-cap space for the team to acquire new players. "Athletes are always talking about money at a time when everyone else is struggling so badly to make it," Brady said. "We all make way more than our fair share, and I just think it reflects poorly on myself and my teammates. I really do just want to win, and that has and will continue to be the reason that motivates and is the biggest factor in my decision-making process."

Brady's sanctimony is tough to take for two reasons. No. 1: He is 36 years old, and his skills are declining. He should be getting a smaller salary from the Patriots for the simple reason that he wouldn't be worth as much on the open market. He also neglected to mention that he makes more in endorsements and commercial deals every year than most of his teammates do in salary.

No. 2: Brady presumably took less money to stay with the Patriots so the team could pay Wes Welker what he deserved, but that's not how things turned out. Instead, New England opted to let Welker walk so they could save money with someone cheaper. That someone is Danny Amendola, who over the next two seasons will get about half what the Patriots would have had to pay Welker.

Ever since professional players won the right to free agency, sportswriters have been deriding them for lack of loyalty when switching to other teams. But loyalty is a door that should swing both ways—i.e., the teams should show loyalty to the players by paying them their market value.

The real truth about the relationship between owners and players was expressed in the classic 1979 football movie North Dallas Forty: "Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game." If Wes Welker didn't understand that before, he understands it now: Football's not a game, it's a business.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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