(Andrew Luck photo courtesy of Indianapolis Colts)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
The difference was staggering and difficult to fathom. It was also mind blowing to NFL players who seem to never quite understand cause and effect when they are the cause of the effects they are feeling.
In the same time frame where Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck was becoming the highest-paid player in NFL history, a basketball player most people in the NFL never heard of agreed to a contract that dwarfed Luck’s numbers … and Mike Conley was not the only one.
Luck signed a six-year, $140 million contract that assures he remains a Colt for the foreseeable future, a deal that will pay him slightly over $23.3 million a season, with $47 million fully guaranteed. That’s a good payday by most any standard … until you realize that Conley, who is best known for having twice won the NBA’s sportsmanship award, has to play a year less to earn $13 million more and is guaranteed $106 million more than Luck to play a game far less dangerous than Luck’s.
While one can debate the differing economics of the two sports, no one would argue an NFL stadium is a safer venue than a basketball court — as Luck found out in 2015 when he missed more than half the season with a shoulder injury and lacerated kidney. The truth is: The only way an NBA player is in danger of lacerating a kidney is trying to pick up his money clip.
NFL players are fully guaranteed only one thing, and that is that they will suffer a major injury at some point in their careers. So, they predictably were irked by what they saw … and that is putting it kindly. The NBA grosses less than half what the NFL does each year, last season banking $5.2 billion to the NFL’s astounding $13 billion, yet the Los Angeles Lakers just paid a guy named Timofey Mozgov $64 million, an average of $16 million a season over the next four years, to watch his teammates play basketball.
That’s more than Tom Brady will be paid for carrying the Patriots on his back again this season, and it’s for a 7-foot-1 backup center who played 25 minutes for the Cleveland Cavaliers during the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors last month.
That’s not 25 minutes a game. That’s 25 minutes.
Not surprisingly, NFL players did not looking fondly on their union once the NBA’s free agents started cashing in, especially since they’d seldom heard of most of them. Running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted out the first night those contracts started coming in: “Call me a hater, but these NBA deals are insane. I have to google the players getting paid.’’
This wasn’t LeBron, after all. It was Le Who?
While those numbers shocked many NFL players, the union argued there are other numbers that explained the difference. The largest is that there are roughly 300 players in the NBA and 1,696 in the NFL (plus the long list of liming players regularly on injured reserve). If you’re dividing $2.6 billion among 300 players and $6.1 billion among nearly 2,000, some of the disparity is explainable.
But there is another reason why players in the NBA and major league baseball dwarf what NFL players not only make but more importantly what they are guaranteed, and it’s the latter that is far more significant in a game as violent as pro football.
Not even Luck is fully guaranteed all he has signed for. Why not? The main reason is the limited free agency NFL players unwisely agreed to accept. Where other athletes can walk at the end of their contracts, NFL players remain hamstrung by the franchise tag, a restriction abused unmercifully by owners since it was first agreed to as a hedge against teams losing their quarterbacks.
Instead, it has been used like a cudgel to restrict even kickers from movement. Until that changes, the economics of the game will not … and, for it to happen, NFL players will have to show a lot more negotiating backbone than has been the case.
Many will argue the average NFL career is still less than four full seasons. So holding out for something the bulk of the union’s members will never qualify for is a negotiating non-starter. But certainly that was not the case with Luck, who could have refused to sign without a full guarantee of his pay. That he did not disappointed some of his peers, but when has one of them done the same?
Until NFL players agree to sit out until they have the same unfettered free agency of their peers in other professional sports, googling the name of unknown NBA millionaires will continue to be an annual summer pastime in the NFL.