We’ve recently been pointing out the fact — and it is a fact, not speculation or supposition — that the pending antitrust lawsuits against the NFL filed by current, former, and future players seek to overturn the draft. But the current players have not yet said whether they believe there should be a draft, whether they believe there shouldn’t be a draft, or whether they believe there should be a draft but they’re willing to tolerate the lawyers’ arguments against a draft for leverage purposes.
Privately, agents have been communicating to us each of those opinions. At least one agent publicly has taken the position that there should be no draft.
“Why should there even be a draft?” Brian Ayrault said last night on Twitter, in response to one of our stories on the subject. “Players should be able to choose who they work for and where they live. . . . No draft would also help prospects choose the best roster situations. Market should determine the value of all contracts.”
But what of the notion that having a draft and limits on free agency and a salary cap ensures competitive balance?
“Competitive balance is a fallacy,” Ayrault said. “The success of teams is determined by good ownership and scouting. Period.”
Ayrault also pointed out in support of his position that, in the last decade, nine different MLB franchises have won the World Series, while only seven different NFL franchise have won the Super Bowl.
That’s the real fallacy. It’s not the champion that determines competitive balance, but the pool of teams that have a realistic shot at becoming the champion. In baseball, a very real sense exists that only a handful of teams every year have a legitimate chance at winning the World Series, and those teams usually separate from the pack by Memorial Day. In Pittsburgh, the hapless Pirates haven’t even sniffed a playoff appearance since 1992, with 19 straight losing seasons and counting.
In the NFL, the devices for ensuring competitive balance have created a situation in which the fans of every team can fashion a plausible path from 0-0 to Lombardi Trophy, even if less than a fourth of the league has completed the journey in the past decade.
After the free agency system with restrictions and a salary cap took root in the mid-1990s, ending the Cowboys-and-49ers domination of the league, the NFL became much more competitive, much more compelling, much more interesting, and much more popular.
Since 1996, 18 teams have rebounded in one offseason from the bottom to the top of their division: the 1996-97 Giants, the 1998-99 Rams, the 1998-99 Colts, the 1999-2000 Saints, the 2000-01 Patriots, the 2000-01 Bears, the 2002-03 Chiefs, the 2002-03 Panthers, the 2003-04 Chargers, the 2003-04 Falcons, the 2004-05 Buccaneers, the 2004-05 Bears, the 2005-06 Saints, the 2005-06 Eagles, the 2006-07 Buccaneers, the 2007-08 Dolphins, the 2008-09 Saints, and the 2009-10 Chiefs. Three of those teams won the Super Bowl, and a fourth (the 2003 Panthers) qualified for the title game.
In the fourteen seasons prior to 1997, only five teams pulled off a worst-to-first one-year turnaround: the 1986-87 Colts, the 1987-88 Bengals, the 1990-91 Broncos, the 1991-92 Chargers, and the 1992-93 Lions.
None won the Super Bowl. (As a reader pointed out, the 1988 Bengals made it there, and almost won.)
So in the NFL competitive balance isn’t about the top of the league, but the bottom. Even if teams like the Redskins and Cowboys wouldn’t be able to buy annual championships given the unique dynamics of a 53-man locker room with 11 players on the field at all times, an NFL with no draft, no limits on free agency, and no salary cap would make it harder for bad teams to get better — and easier for good teams to stay among the elite. Though there may not be a franchise that wins four straight Super Bowls, there very well could be perennial losers like the Pirates, which would give rise to multiple apathetic fan bases that would, in time, diminish the game.
The best hope for the game comes from the possibility that the legal attack on the draft seeks only leverage, and that lawyer Jeffrey Kessler will be muzzled at the appropriate time. Still, until the attack on the draft ends, a chance remains that the attack on the draft will succeed — especially if agents and players agree with Ayrault’s belief that there should be no draft.
We’re still waiting to hear whether current players believe there should be no draft. And until we hear otherwise we’ll continue to assume that they don’t.