Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is looking more and more like a future head of the NFL Players’ Association. He's been outspoken about health, safety and the league's nonguaranteed contracts.
Inside sports business
Stay in any union long enough, you’ll realize it’s often only as good as its ability to get members to go on strike.
Sure, unions can obtain decent benefits in “peace time’’ between work stoppages. But ultimately, the best deals are almost always negotiated with the threat of a hammer dropping if things don’t go the union’s way.
Which brings us to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, looking more and more like a future head of the NFL Players’ Association when speaking about topics other than himself. Sherman recently stated that only by being willing to strike and lose money would football players match the guaranteed contracts of their MLB and NBA brethren.
Which is bang-on advice a younger generation of upcoming NFL players may be more willing than ever to heed.
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It’s not about matching MLB and NBA average salaries, nearly impossible because bigger NFL rosters mean far more players must be paid.
As Sherman pointed out, average salaries mean little in the NFL. It’s the only major sport lacking guaranteed contracts of some type, meaning all that matters today is signing-bonus money.
So it’s improving “guaranteed” salary he’s after.
The other thing increasingly important to NFL players is health and safety, something Sherman also has been outspoken about. Combine that with nonguaranteed contracts, there’s a potential spark to ignite a labor powder keg.
Calvin Johnson, Jerod Mayo, Anthony Davis, D’Brickshaw Ferguson, Husain Abdullah, Jason Worilds and Chris Borland recently retired in their NFL primes, forgoing big money rather than subjecting their bodies to increased punishment and painkiller drugs to keep playing.
The current NFLPA regime has made health and safety more of a priority than during its 25 years under the late Gene Upshaw. Last year, I spoke extensively with DeMaurice Smith, who succeeded Upshaw as executive director in 2009, and he filled me in on various strategies employed in public and behind the scenes to wring out improved on-field safety conditions.
But again, there’s only so much a union can do in “peace time” if ownership doesn’t believe you’ll go to war. That could lead to a more militant NFLPA membership than we’ve seen if Sherman and like-minded thinkers carry sway.
Baseball players fought hard for their money, especially during the 1994 strike — which canceled that season and part of 1995 before owners realized players wouldn’t cave.
NBA players took a hard-line stance on revenue sharing during the 2011 lockout, going so far as to decertify their union into a trade association so they could file an antitrust lawsuit against the league. The NBA quickly settled thereafter; then avoided another stoppage last year.
NFL players, though, hurt their previous strike of 1987 when top stars crossed the picket lines — more worried about losing money than improving long-term gains.
Until that mindset changes, a successful NFL strike is unlikely. But the combination of safety issues and continued lack of guaranteed contracts could provide a catalyst to such change when the current collective-bargaining agreement expires after 2020.
Prevailing NFL wisdom says owners can’t guarantee contracts because player-injury risk is too big. Also, that the players are loath to abbreviate their short career life span even more by striking.
But players already are further abbreviating short careers rather than continuing to endure the physical punishment NFL teams put them through.
Former Seahawks offensive tackle Jerry Wunsch told me in April he’d received pregame Toradol injections, Vicodin and a wide range of anti-inflammatory drugs just to stay on the field. And Wunsch gladly took them — his body pummeled into a gradually deteriorating mess — because he needed the weekly money.
Wunsch signed a five-year, $13 million deal with Tampa Bay in 2001. But after collecting a $2.2 million signing bonus, he earned only his first-year base salary of $450,000 for that 2001 season plus a $300,000 roster bonus before being cut in 2002.
Sure, $3 million earned off a $13 million deal is still a lot. But Wunsch never landed another seven-figure yearly contract. With the Seahawks, he signed six-figure deals over the next three years, routinely got released in-season and had to re-sign for progressively less money.
He’d stay in games in which he was knocked “senseless” and reduced to vomiting in the huddle.
“It was all about getting that next week’s paycheck,” he told me. “I was literally on a week-to-week deal. They could cut me at any time.”
After his career ended at age 32, he suffered from memory loss and constant pain that made it difficult to hold full-time work. Getting your life’s earnings up front in your 20s sounds great, but try making it last a lifetime with myriad medical issues.
Without guaranteed contracts, teams allow players to be battered to a pulp with little financial ramifications beyond the current season. In baseball, if Felix Hernandez gets a hangnail, the Mariners are shutting him down rather than mess with a $25 million annual investment guaranteed for years to come.
Thus, NFL player safety is arguably better protected if teams have more invested in it. Teams forced to guarantee more of a $100 million contract over five years would think twice about letting a player use painkillers to take the field hurt in Year 1.
Today’s NFL players already are retiring early. It’s hardly unreasonable to assume this upcoming football generation might decide bigger guarantees are worth fighting for over today’s signing-bonus allotment.
And if that happens, it could very well be Sherman leading them into battle, the likes of which the NFL has never known.