NFL peace guaranteed, salaries aren't
Aug. 12-18, 2002
In the swelter of twice-daily practices in the August sun, nothing quite focuses the mind of an NFL player like knowing he could be out of work within the hour. "That's the NFL," said Byron Chamberlain, Minnesota's starting tight end. "No security. Guys feel they can be cut at any time."
Most of them can be. NFL contracts, unlike those in the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, are rarely guaranteed. Only 3 percent of players, 58 of about 1,800, will get paid this season regardless of whether they make an NFL team.
That includes New England Patriots' place-kicker Adam Vinatieri, who in March signed a heralded, $5.375 million contract that is almost completely guaranteed. Far from being a harbinger of a new era, though, Vinatieri's contract is an aberration. Only players with at least four years' tenure are even guaranteed a paycheck from week to week once they've made an NFL roster. All the others can be cut on a whim and never get another dollar.
NFL owners are merely playing by the rules they negotiated with the National Football League Players Association in the 1993 collective-bargaining agreement, which was extended last year through the 2007 season and remains largely intact. While the NFLPA's ballyhooed "partnership" with the league ensures labor peace, and such peace is partly responsible for a substantial growth in television revenue and franchise values, it has come at a cost. Other leagues take guaranteed contracts as a given, but in the NFL they're more rumor than reality.
Despite the NFLPA's best efforts and the gains players have made in average salary and other benefits in recent years, a football team that finds its fortunes taking an unexpected bad turn, or that simply wants to cut payroll, doesn't have to figure out ways to offload players with heavy contracts, as baseball and basketball teams do. It can simply release them and be free of obligation, making those players wonder exactly what those union dues were for.
It happened in Baltimore after last season. Nearly two dozen contributors on a 10-6 Ravens team that advanced to last season's AFC semifinals — including starting quarterback Elvis Grbac, tight end Shannon Sharpe, wide receiver Qadry Ismail, safety Rod Woodson and defensive tackle Sam Adams — have not returned for 2002.
"I had seven and a half million dollars left on my contract," said Sharpe, who was released midway through a four-year deal and later signed with Denver for a substantially smaller salary. "It isn't like I'm going to go hungry here, but I wouldn't say the system worked for me. It didn't."