Plenty of players skipped mandatory minicamps this year in an effort to get more money. And plenty of fans don’t like it.
Why, given all that is now known about the risks of a career in professional football, do fans continue to complain when a player hopes to receive greater compensation for the risks he assumes and the sacrifices he makes? When the billionaire owners make shrewd business moves, they receive the perfunctory slow-clap from admiring fans. When players (many of whom aren’t millionaires in the sense that they don’t have a net worth of more than $1 million — and they definitely don’t have liquid assets to that degree) try to use the system to their advantage, they’re described as selfish, not team-oriented, and worried about the wrong things.
Hyperbolic curmudgeon Bill Polian recently ranted on ESPN’s NFL Live about the disingenuous notion that players have an obligation to honor their contracts. That’s easy for folks on the league’s side of the ledger to say, since teams can rip up the contracts whenever they want. Players can’t just walk away, so at times they must take advantage of the tools available to them under the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Despite Polian’s position that players have no real alternatives, they do. The system allows them to not show up, as long as they’re willing to risk incurring the associated fines. For mandatory minicamp, the potential price is $84,435. For training camp, it’s $40,000 per day.
And if the players choose to push it even farther, they can give up game checks and show up as late as Week 10, getting credit for the contract year and moving another step closer to free agency.
The notion that a player who consciously takes advantage of these options is “violating his contract” ignores the broader contract that dictates the team-player relationship. The overriding document is the CBA, and the CBA allows players to withhold services (at a price), if they choose to do so.
Even then, fans still routinely side with the billionaires over the mostly-not-millionaires. It likely happens for a variety of reasons.
First, fans just want the players to play. During a holdout, it’s the player who is the one directly responsible for keeping the player from playing. So the fans pressure the player to “honor his contract,” not the team to give him a new one.
Second, the fans don’t care about the massive wealth differential between owners and players. From the perspective of the fans, they’re all rich. However, the owners are dramatically richer, earning billions collectively every year while also holding 100 percent of the equity in the teams. And the owners can do it indefinitely. The players have a limited window to make what they can before the exit the game with bodies and brains that may eventually betray them.
Third, it’s would be foolish to not consider the racial component, especially against the backdrop of the ongoing anthem debate. Some (many) white fans surely resent (consciously or not) the fact that African-American men parlay God-given physical skills into the kind of money and fame that the average white person never will enjoy, no matter how hard he or she works. So when African-American players try to get more money that some (many) white fans think they don’t really deserve, those fans get even more upset, reasoning that the players who already have more than they should should simply be happy with what they’re getting.
Regardless of the reason(s), fans are playing right into the hands of the billionaires, making it even harder for players who have one or two chances in their football lifetimes to maximize their earnings. Meanwhile, the billionaires continue to sit back and watch the money roll in, year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, without ever taking a single physical risk.
That will continue even if fans change their perspective, but it will at least be a little harder for the billionaires to consistently get their way if fans are willing to rise up and demand that the revenue generated by the sport be more fairly distributed to those who make the sport what it is.