Leverage is only leverage if you’re willing to use it. Kirk Cousins already has pried $44 million in fully guaranteed cash out of an NFL team owner’s pocket, because he was willing to bet on himself. Owners hate paying guaranteed money more than they hate paying taxes. For his next trick, Cousins should show them what a true free agent looks like. He should decline to sign a long-term deal with the Washington Redskins. Bet on himself again, and force the Redskins and the NFL to do what they so seldom have to: deal in an open market.
Cousins is not just negotiating for himself, he is negotiating for every guy in a uniform who has been treated as disposable. The only way there will ever be more guaranteed money in the NFL is if players such as Cousins demand it, and quit signing “long-term” contracts with deceptive numbers in search of a security that doesn’t really exist in this league.
NFL players drive $14 billion in revenue, more than any sports league by several billions. Yet they have the worst contracts and financial participation, and the fewest guarantees of any athletes. All NFLers, regardless of their pay grade or position, should ask a fundamental question: Why are their salaries are capped, but Roger Goodell’s isn’t?
If you want to understand the real tilt and psychology of the league, just consider that NFL owners paid the commissioner $150 million over eight years – more than Tom Brady by about $60 million, according to Business Insider. As league analyst and former Green Bay Packers vice president Andrew Brandt said, NFL players “are sitting at the children’s table” when it comes to money, career stability and balance of power.
Last week Derek Carr signed a deal with the Oakland Raiders supposedly worth $125 million over five years – impressive, until you learn that just $40 million was guaranteed at signing. Meanwhile in the same city, in the same week, Steph Curry signed with the Golden State Warriors for $201 million over five years, every dime of it guaranteed.
The truth? An NFL quarterback can only envy an NBA point guard’s money and doesn’t have nearly his career stability. All of the talk around NFL contracts revolves around average yearly salary, but as Brandt pointed out, most NFL deals are only good for the first couple of seasons and then what the contract really says is, “We’ll see.” Somehow the risk, the variables of performance and injury, wind up coming out of NFL player contracts instead of the owner’s pockets.
“The real difference between NFL and NBA/MLB contracts is not so much the total values, but the security involved,” Brandt said. “To me it is all about risk allocation: NFL deals allocate risk to the player; NBA/MLB deals allocate risk to the team. As to the standard refrain I hear about lack of guarantees due to the injury risk in football, that is a great argument . . . for the owners. One could easily argue that NFL players are more deserving of guarantees than all other team sport athletes.”
NFL players are simply not getting their due. Why is it that NBA players get 51.1 percent of their league’s revenue, but NFL players get only 47-48 percent – after the owners have taken $1 billion off the top? The NBA salary cap is $99 million for 450 players. The NFL cap is just $155 million for four times as many players. NFL revenues have grown by about 31 percent since the last bargaining agreement in 2011, yet the salary cap has increased only fractionally. Something is wrong with those numbers.
Guaranteed money is the grail of the NFL. It’s what everyone wants and hardly anyone gets – because they’re rarely in a position to force teams to pay it. Instead, players chase paper. They sign supposed “long-term” deals that pay a fraction of what they promise and are never actually fulfilled: Colin Kaepernick signed a seven-year-deal with the 49ers, but only 11 percent was sure money, and he was gone after two years. Take a look at the richest NFL contracts of $100 million or so, and usually only about 31 percent is actually guaranteed, according to Business Insider. There are only the rarest exceptions: Ndamukong Suh got more than 50 percent of his deal in real money. So did Darrelle Revis. There’s two.
The league can surely afford greater percentages than this. It’s a cultural issue as much as anything: Historically the owners have acted like the ranchers and the players the cattle. The NFL Players Union has had some inherent weaknesses: Short average career length and wide pay differences mean a lack of cohesion and constant membership turnover, and the need to compromise even from within. Meantime the NFL management council is a much smaller group with the clearer goal of controlling their costs, and fewer people to please.
The NFLPA finally won some guaranteed money for elite first-round draft picks in the last bargaining agreement – but with it came an owner-imposed rookie cap. Brandt said that if the children’s-table psychology is going to change, if NFL players are ever going to “break the seal on guarantees,” it’s going to take a combined effort from the union and individual stars such as Cousins to reject deals that are more paper than real money.
Last year it was an easy decision for Cousins to reject a contract offer insultingly beneath his value, and play for one year of guaranteed money under the franchise player tag. This time around, he will need real resolve to reject an offer that is likely to be more generous – perhaps even in the $50 million -$55 million range – but still not what he would command by testing the marketplace. Predictions are that if he’s willing to become a free agent next season, he might command as much as $30 million a year guaranteed. And if the Redskins were forced to tag him again, the price would be $34 million for a single season of his services.
Cousins is an interesting man who just may have the steel in him to raise the ceiling for everyone. Why should he accept $10 million a year less than his market worth from the Redskins in the name of stability? Stability – for whom? Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen, that’s who. Not for Cousins, who easily could be dumped by these people. As Cousins seems to understand.
“Even if it says it’s a three- or four-year contract, really the only guarantees are this year,” Cousins said recently on Redskins TV. “Many of us are playing on one-year deals. I’m not the only one, and we’re not going to have careers if we don’t have a great year this year, so we all don’t look much further than this season.”
Redskins ownership-management dealt with Cousins as a depreciable asset rather than a valued employee, until they decided they needed him. Now Cousins has leverage – but it’s only real leverage if he is willing to decline a contract, to say no to the deceptive “long-term” offer that may be psychologically relieving but is not truly secure without a guarantee of good hard cash money.