NFL: Long-term deals don't always work
By Gary Peterson
Contra Costa Times
OAKLAND, Calif. — As a competitive endeavor, JaMarcus Russell's tenure with the Oakland Raiders was almost unwatchable. One eye patch? Try two.
Considered in a sociological context, it delivers a powerful message: When you hand a young man an unthinkable amount of money for something he might do for you at some point, you get what you pay (and pay, and pay) for.
Long-term contracts have been a talking point in professional sports dating back to Babe Ruth's peak earning years. And they have always been a gamble. They became even more problematic when the Me Generation came of age at the dawn of free agency.
Sometimes they work out. In December 1992, the Giants' new owners signed Barry Bonds to a six-year, $43.75 million contract that outraged baseball but revived their franchise.
Sometimes they don't. In November 2008, the Warriors signed Stephen Jackson to a three-year, $28 million extension. Less than a year later, long before the new deal had kicked in, Jackson demanded to be traded.
Sometimes they do and they don't. In the spring of 2008, the Pittsburgh Steelers renegotiated quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract into an eight-year, $102 million Goliath with more than $36 million guaranteed. They won the Super Bowl that season. They missed the playoffs in '09. Roethlisberger has been suspended for the first six games of the 2010 season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. It has been reported the Steelers are trying to trade Big Ben.
At least the above-mentioned members of the Gazillionaires Club had done something at the professional level to earn their big paydays. Russell did nothing to earn his, and even less to validate it. He spent more time brushing his ankle-length fur coat than he did brushing up on the Raiders playbook.
This isn't a plea for sympathy on behalf of Raiders owner Al Davis, by the way. Cutting seven-figure checks for the hired help is the cost of doing business in his line of work. And the last time we checked, The Dominator was still arriving at home games in a stretch limo.
But you'd think the caretakers of the NFL, inspired by Russell's uninspired cash grab, would be moved to action. The NBA has a rookie salary cap. Why not the NFL?
As it happens, NFL owners are out of contract with the NFL Players Association. One of the reasons owners opted out of the most recent collective bargaining agreement was to explore the possibility of a structured rookie wage scale.
Russell's release, which applied the official stamp of failure on his Raiders career, should have both sides clamoring to make such a deal. Frankly, it's surprising the current system has lasted this long.
It serves only two parties — the athlete and his agent. And in truth, it doesn't serve the athlete that well. Big-money negotiations often drag on, leading to holdouts. Russell didn't sign until after the start of his rookie season. That leads to fan animosity that typically blows back on the player. As does the resentment of his new teammates who showed up for training camp on time and ready to work.
Everyone else is left slapping their forehead. Owners, who face intense pressure to deliver the athlete they drafted to great fanfare in April. Fans, seduced by the "franchise savior" come-on, who clamor for a glimpse of the new guy. And veterans, with body parts sacrificed to make themselves an indispensable part of the organization, who are appalled at having their salaries dwarfed by an apple-cheeked kid who doesn't know the first thing about being a professional.
The NBA used to have the same problem. Chris Mullin, you may recall, held out until the seventh game of his rookie season with the Warriors. In 1995, the league and players agreed on a rookie salary cap, which tied what you got paid to where you were drafted. Now it's a painless process.
Except for agents, of course. They should prove the biggest advocates against an NFL rookie cap. But they've never been accused of caring about the game like an owner, fan or veteran player.
There will be no salary cap at all in the NFL this coming season, per the opt-out clause the owners activated. But when the new CBA is ratified, expect it to contain a JaMarcus Rule.
It had better. It's the only way the league will gain any material benefit from Russell's three seasons in Oakland. Well, aside from the surplus collectible ski caps.