Broken Pay Scale: Rookies vs. Veterans

Quietly some veteran players are at odds amongst themselves with the current salary structure in the NFL. A recent conversation to which I was privy, amongst a couple veteran players of the NFL and a recently released player, who has only played in the NFL for one year, had some interesting comments about the current NFL salary structure, and how it is flawed, or not, depending on what level you are at in life.

Since 1998, player salaries for each tiered year have increased 188%. For example, in 1998, the minimum salary paid to a rookie player who made the final 53-man roster was a minimum $165,000. In 2009, the minimum salary for a rookie player is $310,000.  That equates to an average salary increase of 17% for each year-over-year comparison.

WHOA! 

I am reminded when I was working in the front offices of the NFL and I asked a friend of mine who was in his second year of the NFL at that time, “Do you think the current salary structure in the NFL is appropriate for rookies?”

His response was, “Yeah! It just means I should have balled out (played better) more during my college years!” I was taken back a little by his response being that I though we make share a more similar view, but not overly surprised at his answer, because he did not know what he did not know at that time. Yes, you read the previous sentence correctly.

Fast-forward in time, and I asked the same player, then in his eighth year of the NFL, essentially the same question, and his response was profoundly different!  This time he said, “Man, the system needs to change. There is no way a guy right of college should be making more than me and all I have done in the NFL.” Everyone in the business knows the current salary pay scale needs some adjusting.

Fans do not show up on Sunday afternoon to watch the owners walk around (well maybe, Jerry Jones), but instead come to see the product on the field; the players. Players deserve every penny of the money they are paid and should be compensated as fairly, but salaries are increasing at a rate that is not sustainable. Now understand, I am not saying that the owners should hoard all the profits for themselves, but how would you feel if your electric bill, water bill, and car note went up an average of 17% every year for the past 10 years? In the words of the great ABC college sportscaster Keith Jackson, “Whoa, Nelly!”  Imagine if you were an owner and your costs kept increasing at that rate. Ever wonder why ticket prices keep going up for those who make millions of dollars? And who generally pays for the increased costs? That’s right, you and I as fans!

In defense of current big name rookies who signed lucrative rookie contracts, such as Detroit Lions’ QB Matthew Stafford (six-years, $41.7 million guaranteed), New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez (five-years, $28 million guaranteed), Oakland Raiders WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (five-years, $23.5 million guaranteed), and a host of other highly paid rookies, it is not their fault they are being paid these monstrous salaries. This is the system that is in place and they happen to reap the benefits of such a system. Does Stafford really deserve to be paid more than the Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning, or three-time Super Bowl Champion QB Tom Brady of the New England Patriots? In case you didn’t know or realize, Stafford is slated t make more money than both of those quarterbacks in 2009.  While it is great to have the first pick in the draft, it can come at an enormous price for the team and the team’s fans, long term, if the player does not live up to expectations. Hopefully each team’s first-round pick is a success, but there is a likelihood all will not pan out as success for whatever reason.

The inverse draft system (last-place picks first, first-place picks last) and revenue-sharing creates parity in the NFL and makes the NFL game exciting and unique, however the salary structure paid to NFL players under the current salary cap makes it very hard for last place teams to get out of the “dungeon” of the NFL without overextending and making business decisions that do not make the most economic sense.  Free-agency is everything players fought for throughout the 70s and 80s, it has now seemingly become a disaster for those who fought for it.

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