Crabtree Aside, NFL Doesn't Need a Rookie Wage Scale
The big-picture problem with the Crabtree situation is that it has led to renewed calls for the NFL to seek a rookie wage scale -- to push for a provision in the next collective bargaining agreement that would establish rigid and restrictive guidelines for rookie salaries based on where the players are drafted. This is an easy and simplistic solution for which to press. (Everybody can agree it seems foolish that Matthew Stafford makes more money than Tom Brady.) But the facts are that it's too easy, too simplistic and, given the current structure, totally unnecessary.
See, there already is a rookie salary cap. As the system is currently structured, each team each year is assigned a certain amount, within its salary-cap figure, that it's allotted to spend on rookies. League-wide, this figure amounts to a little less than four percent of the total amount teams are allowed to spend on player salaries under the salary cap rules. This figure is determined based on how many picks each team has and where they're located within the draft. The current system limits the amount of money teams can spend to sign their draft picks. All it fails to do is assign specific values to specific picks.
What the league and the owners want to do is to establish those specific values within that rookie cap -- "slots" for each draft pick similar to what they have in the NBA, so that the No. 10 pick, for example, would basically know what he should expect to get paid the moment he's picked.
The players' union, as new executive director DeMaurice Smith has said publicly many times, opposes this idea. And the main reason is because the only effect it would have would be to shift the blame for a situation such as Crabtree's completely to the player. If there was a slotting system in place, and the public knew what it was, then the player would effectively lose all leverage. An owner like Oakland's Al Davis screws up the whole draft by picking the wrong receiver first? Hey, don't blame the owners. The players know what they're supposed to get and if they don't sign it's their fault.
"What the rookie wage scale does is take the onus off the owners, who are the LHRC -- the lower right-hand corner of the check," union spokesman George Atallah told FanHouse in a recent phone interview. "They sign the check. It's not the union's fault that teams draft poorly and they don't pan out. Until we own a team, we're not not going to regulate how much rookies make. We just won't."
The NFLPA knew this was coming, so it recently commissioned a study of NFL team's salary-cap spending over the past two years. Atallah says the study concluded that none of the NFL's 32 teams spent its full veteran allotment in any of those years. The point, the union says, is that the idea that teams would take the money it's currently spending on rookies and give it to veterans instead is misguided.
"The Eli Manning contract shows that clearly there's money under the cap for these teams to spend on proven veterans if they want to," Atallah said. "The argument that a rookie cap would allow them to spend more money on veterans is a smokescreen, because there's already money there under the cap that's unused."
This is an important point for the union to make because it feels the league and the owners plan to use the rookie wage scale as a "wedge issue" to pit veterans against rookies and divide the union. The union (which has failed so often in the past because of its members' inability to stick together on these crucial issues) wants its members to know that the reason the owners want to spent less on rookies isn't because they want to pay their veterans more -- just that they want to spend less overall.
"It's going to be a wedge issue, because veterans obviously don't like the fact that rookies make more than they do, and we certainly acknowledge that," Atallah said.
The fear is that the easy side of the argument will carry the day -- that the numbers at the very top of the draft will overwhelm public perception in favor of the owners' position. That the fact that 256 players get drafted and the vast majority of them get contracts and signing bonuses much more in line with what veterans and the public would think rookies should make won't matter because all anybody hears is "Matthew Stafford makes more than Tom Brady." That nobody will understand that, for the majority of each year's draft picks, the first contract will be the only contract, because the average life span of an NFL career is less than four years.
A panel discussion Thursday morning on the NFL Network got the union upset when network host Rich Eisen said the current system "only helps agents" and that he didn't know "why the players' association would want to continue with this."
The union resents the idea that they should be involved at all in negotiations of contracts between owners and agents.
"When ESPN canceled 'Beg, Borrow and Deal,' Mr. Eisen didn't call a TV host union to get involved in keeping the show on air," Atallah said. "Why would we get involved with ownership in selecting, slotting or signing picks?"
They shouldn't. A rookie wage scale would be the easy way out for the owners, and it's not necessary. If they owners don't want to spend so much more on rookies than they do on veterans, they can fix it. They can draft better. They can police themselves on rookie spending. They can give the veterans more. They don't need any restrictive new rules to allow them to do it. The rules are already on the books, and from a players' standpoint, they're restrictive enough.
Don't believe the hype. The NFL doesn't need a rookie wage scale.