Clark's comments (excerpt after the jump) raise an interesting issue, but it's not one the players' union can be very happy about him raising. Because by raising it, Clark is playing right into the hands of the NFL and its owners as they attempt to employ a divide-and-conquer strategy against the players in the upcoming CBA negotiations.
"'When you talk to most of the players, they think, "Oh, it's an uncapped year, I can go out and make all this money,' " said Clark. "But the other eighty-five percent of the league that's not the top tier players, they're going to suffer."A couple of things on this:
Clark's 85 percent figure might be high, but his point is well taken. Getting rid of the salary cap would also mean eliminating the salary floor, and the required minimum salaries for veterans. For example, say a veteran with a certain number of years in the league is making $500,000 because that's the figure the current structure requires for a player at his service time. If the cap (and that required minimum) disappears, that player's team can cut his salary down to, say, $100,000. The players who have a higher veteran salary requirement are likely to be hurt by an uncapped year.
But while well taken, Clark's point doesn't fully illustrate the issue. Where the NFL would really feel the effects of the uncapped year is among those top-tier players to whom Clark refers -- the multi-million-dollar superstars. Those are the players who will see their salaries skyrocket in an uncapped year, especially if an aggresive, wealthy owner such as Washington's Dan Snyder, Dallas' Jerry Jones or Seattle's Paul Allen decides to pull a George Steinbrenner and sign a bunch of top free agents in an effort to buy a championship.
If guys like Eli Manning, Julius Peppers and Mario Williams suddenly find themselves on a free-agent market with no cap, the effect is likely to be an exponentially widening gap between the salaries of the highest-paid players and the rest of the players in the league. Because if the owners have to kick in extra to sign or keep their superstars, guess how they're going to pay for it. That's right. By shaving down the salaries of the Desmond Clarks of the world.
Think about it. If a team has 20 players making $500,000 each and it decides to cut all of their salaries to $100,000, that's a savings of $8 million that could then be put toward signing the star, or the top draft pick. And if the players whose salaries are being cut don't like it, the owners can tell them to go somewhere else, because there's undoubtedly somebody waiting right behind them who'd be happy to play for that money.
That's why the owners have to be happy to hear somebody like Clark talking this way. This uncapped year could work for the owners as a "wedge issue," dividing one group of players against another at a time when unity is vital. If the mid-tier players in the Bears' locker room fear their salaries will be cut so that the top-tier players can make more, that's not a recipe for unity.
The owners are attempting their divide-and-conquer strategy on a number of fronts. They have been trying to get retired players on their side, trading on that group's historically frustrating relationship with the union. And they have been calling for a rookie wage scale, publicly decrying the discrepancies in a system that allows Matthew Stafford to make more than Tom Brady. That's another wedge issue, one that attempts to pit rookie players against veterans in discussions about money.
That's why new NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith has been traveling the country to try and deliver his message to every player in every NFL locker room. Because while what Clark is saying might be true, it distracts from the mission on which Smith and the union now find themselves. The owners have opted out of the CBA. The players have the high ground as they continue to ask the owners why they did that. If they stay united, they can keep that high ground. But if they fracture, their bargaining position will lose its strength, and the owners likely will be able to get whatever they want in the negotiations. Smith told FanHouse earlier this month that he believes the owners intend to lock out the players in 2011, and that the owners are in a position to make money even if no games are played that year. So he's preparing for a tough fight, and he needs his guys to stay together in back of him.
Regardless, and regardless of what either side has said to date, that March deadline looms large. Because there are very few people, if any, in the game who want to see the salary cap go away in 2010.