Bill Polian got quite grumpy when talking about player absences at mini-camps due to contract-related holdouts. When asked what David Johnson’s market value on the open market would be, he shot back with “he’s not on the open market,” and then launched into this:
“Everyone who has a contract is obligated to honor that contract. Just because they want a new contract doesn’t mean they should get one. They have a contract to honor. They are not free agents. The CBA allows them to have free agency. They have not yet reached free agency. They do not have a contractual right to abrogate their contracts.”
That’s all well and good, in a gumdrops-and-lollipop world, but this is the system the NFL created. Tedy Bruschi was the voice of reason, noting that these players came into a system that had them take below-market contracts on rookie deals, and they have outperformed them.
Polian: “Tell them to call their union, D. Smith [DeMaurice Smith] he’s the one that negotiated this agreement, he’s the one that did it, I didn’t do it, Roger Goodell didn’t do it, Rich McKay didn’t do it, nobody on management side did this. D. Smith agreed to it.”
Bruschi: “These players didn’t. This is there only recourse though.”
Polian: “I’m not arguing with that. What I’m saying is they don’t have a right to do this, they are taking some risk to do this. They are not entitled to get a new contract.”
So let’s deconstruct this. We should note that Bill Polian was a vocal proponent of a rookie wage scale before it happened. From Bill Polian in 2010:
“We need to change the rookie system because to have, for example, Sam Bradford paid $50 million in guaranteed money for never having taken a snap in the National Football League is just wrong,” Polian told 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. “That money should go to veteran players who have earned it in the National Football League. That’s a very stark example, but it exists. It’s there, and it needs to be changed.”
You see, the problem back in 2010, in the eyes of some, was that young players, already restricted by a draft that kept them from being truly free, were getting too much money from these poor clubs who were unable to negotiate and simply had to pay. (Yes, that’s sarcasm).
It’s also fairly revisionist history to just say “call DeMaurice Smith,” and that Polian, or Commissioner Roger Goodell, had nothing to do with it. The NFLPA opposed the Rookie Wage Scale, which was the NFL’s big push entering that lockout of 2011. I wrote about some of my issues with both reducing young player salaries and not reducing the number of years until free agency, because it would lead to situations where “many top players are underpaid during the prime of their careers.” The current holdouts are a direct reflection of that.
And without going too far down that rabbit hole, you might remember that there was lots of litigation and leverage involving the owners having negotiated TV deals so they still got money up front in case of a lockout, so they had a leverage hammer over the players. The NFLPA won at a lower level and then the NFL won a ruling and it paved the way for the concessions that were made.
Now, it is true that the NFLPA conceded and “robbed” future players at the expense of the current ones by the features they conceded on the rookie wage scale (initially, the NFLPA pushed for shorter length of contracts so stars could get to free agency if they proved successful, in exchange for smaller contracts right away.) The current generation of stars were not part of those negotiations, and basically had many of their contractual rights limited.
“Yeah, that kind of sucks,” one star player said last summer while he was waiting for a long-term deal, “Sometimes guys have to wait five years. Other guys don’t. But that’s what they agreed on in the past. Next time we’ve just got to do a better job of structuring what we want to do. At the end of the day, if you play at a high level, things should pan out for you.”
That player, by the way, was Ryan Shazier.
So let’s get to this “they don’t have a right to do this” as argued by Polian, since he’s talking about what was negotiated. The rookie wage agreement actually did put fairly onerous restrictions on when a player could try to renegotiate a deal.
Teams cannot extend a player on the rookie deal until after his third season, which means that the mechanisms that have–for as long as I can recall been a part of the NFL because of the non-guaranteed contracts–been available such as holdouts are forbidden until then. The CBA also provides a mechanism–a liquidated damages provision–for when a player fails to appear at a mandatory function because of a holdout. They are fined $30,000 per day. So it seems the NFL and the NFLPA contemplated the holdouts, and didn’t bar them. It seems a right exists, with specific provisions for what happens when a player holds out.
When the value of what they are being paid is so vastly different than worth, then you’ll see holdouts where the player determines–as is their right–that they will accumulate those penalties and make them up on the back end of getting a deal.
David Johnson is actually a prime example of why the mechanism is needed. Johnson entered the league at a relatively older age (he turned 24 in December of his rookie year). He’s 26 now, and still only three years in, and he plays a running back position where teams are hesitant to pay players after they hit 28. He’s one of the best five running backs in the league if we had an open draft today, and he’s got the 27th-highest cap charge for 2018, right between Duke Johnson and Charcandrick West, two situational backs. He’s a vital cog to the offense, has proven his talent, and will see his market value constantly derided when the same people who said “we can’t pay unproven players” switch to ‘we can’t pay older backs.”
He has the right to hold out, can pay the fines, and should do what’s best for him in the system that the NFL has set up.