[Editor’s note: Agent Neil Schwartz recently approached me with an idea to make veteran players more attractive to teams and, more importantly, to ensure that all NFL players make a very comfortable living. The end result is a column on which Schwartz and I collaborated. Any typos are his fault.]
As the NFL and its players learn more about the realities of playing pro football, it’s more important than ever that all players receive fair compensation for the risks they assume. And by all players, that means every player. Which means that each player should have a minimum salary that reflects the maximum toll the game can take on the human body.
Currently, the league ties minimum salary to experience. For new players, it’s $450,000. For players with 10 or more years of experience, the minimum rises to $985,000. This disparity makes younger players more attractive than older ones, even with the “minimum salary benefit,” a device that provides teams with a salary-cap break on older players with minimum-salary deals, but not a cash break.
When it comes to the 29 positions on the 53-man roster that don’t go to offensive and defensive starters, cheaper is usually better. And younger is always cheaper.
The gap between young/cheap and old/costly gets partially bridged under the existing labor deal through the performance-based pool, which gives the lowest-paid players more money based on how much they play. Still, that money comes from the league at large; at the team level, going young on the back half of the roster means saving money. Which gives the teams even more leverage when squeezing veteran players to take less.
So why not guarantee every NFL player who is on an active roster more? The floor should be the same for all players, and the best place to start is the number that still exudes “rich.” One million dollars.
Yes, the minimum salary for all players should be the same, regardless of experience. And it should be $1 million dollars for now, with increases based upon the annual increases in the salary cap.
The adjustment will cost the owners nothing, since they’re already operating in a salary-capped environment. It will, as a practical matter, pick the pockets of some the NFL’s richest players, but maybe the league needs a dash of Robin Hood in order to ensure that all players are able to exit the sport with enough money to have made it worth their while.
As a practical matter, non-superstars who currently are making a significant amount of money would likely lose the most. But that group isn’t nearly big enough to dictate policy for the union at large. As a matter of basic fairness, those players still have every right to negotiate competitively the best possible deal within the confines of the salary cap — a dynamic that all players currently face.
Increasing the minimum salary regardless of experience will create an incentive both for teams to keep older players and for older players to keep playing. It also will make the sport even more attractive for the vast majority who currently won’t get truly rich but could die prematurely for the trying.
That latter angle could be the most important one. At a time when a smattering of veterans are walking away from the game due to concussion concerns, no rookies currently are opting out of the chance to get drafted. At some point, that could change. Putting more money on the table sooner than later could keep that from happening.
Although the current labor agreement has five years remaining on it, side deals can be reached at any time. This is a potential side deal that will help both sides significantly, a true win-win for management and labor that in turn can be a big win for most players.