5 min read

CBA Primer: Freedom is for poor people

CBA Primer: Freedom is for poor people
AP Photo

Adrian Peterson, the Sooner legend and current NFL superstar, recently compared his plight to that of the early-American slave. Slated to make $10.72 million if the 2011 season occurs, just about everyone who can complain about “A.D.’s” bold pronouncement has done so. The thing is, he might have had a point, even though he did a poor job of making one. If NBA owners get their way, basketball players will be next in line to talk about “modern day slavery.”

The hang up for most who gripe about Peterson’s lack of tact is that he will make more for one game than a vast majority of un-enslaved Americans hope to make in a lifetime. However, it was not the poor wages and fringe benefits that made the slaves slaves. Freedom, or more accurately, the lack thereof, was the foremost issue. By the system that is being negotiated currently, the NFL restricts the ability of their players to control their own destiny worse than any other sport.

Players have little input regarding where they begin their career, unless they have a name like “Manning” and are willing to withstand a PR nightmare. Then, if the player turns out to be a good, the odds of them being allowed to change teams are minimal. When the NFL team is satisfied with the player’s production, they have the ability to restrict the player’s ability to even test the market. That eliminates their ability to maximize their salary potential or select the job situation that they prefer. In essence, over the years the NFL Player’s Union has collective bargained away the freedom of the elite players.

[pullquote]The power structure is mostly one-sided. Most likely, it will become even more so.[/pullquote]

After a Summer in which several teams were left with a void after their stars chose to pursue their own individual happiness over that of their previously loyal fan bases, the collective bargaining negotiations have involved discussions of ways to curtail player-controlled movement. Some of the contract language has likely been written using comic sans.

What is overlooked while the owners suggest instituting an NFL-style “Franchise Tag” to keep free agents from bolting is that it is entirely hypocritical to complain about players leaving. Less than a year after Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was generally praised for his comic sans manifesto attacking the character of LeBron James for exercising his right to sign with the Miami Heat, the league witnessed the most interesting trade deadline in recent history. While they argue for ways to force players to remain loyal to one team, they simultaneously send those players across the country without any interest in their desire to be traded. The power structure is mostly one-sided. Most likely, it will become even more so.

Basically, these guys are going to ruin it for everybody

Before going any further, it is probably important to define what a “franchise tag” entails. In the NFL, a player who is deemed a “franchise” player has their rights to free agency stripped. In return, the team holding their rights has to pay them the average of the five highest paid players at that position. So, for those who lambasted Adrian Peterson because he has already been well rewarded fiscally, it will be tough to convince them that tagging is unfair. Arguing that if one were working for a boss they hated in a city they despised, they could quit tomorrow and find a similar job elsewhere probably would not do much to get people to look past the giant dollar signs. Of course, with the NBA such a system is not likely to show players the money. Already, the maximum amount a player can make is set in stone. When LeBron shopped around for a new team last Summer, money was the furthest thing from his mind. Regardless of where he chose to play, he was limited to approximately $16 million (which is obviously well below what he could make on a truly open market since many inferior players have signed contracts for similar dollar values)…so the ability to choose his location was the only variable he had control over.

Of all the demands made by the owners, I project “franchise tags” as the second easiest (behind re-defining the minimum age) to ram through in the negotiations. Were the truth to be told, it affects only a small number of players and the 95+% of players who would never be tagged are not going to give up something that benefits them to protect the guys who make the money they only dream about.

If tagging does not make it into the new CBA, it probably stems from an ownership hesitance. Remember, franchise tagging protects teams that currently have superstar players, but not everyone wants to see those stars cater to the same fans for their whole career. The reason the Summer of 2010 was loaded with free agent movement is that there were plenty of teams very eager to poach the stars. So for every Orlando who is afraid of losing a Dwight Howard, there are ten teams who would do everything in their power to procure Howard’s services.

Where do you think you're going?

Even the league offices are probably tentative about restricting free agent stars that much. Yes, they prefer players remain with a team for their whole career, otherwise they would not have protected “Bird Rights” for so long to the detriment of their true desire for a more solid salary cap. On the other hand, the free agent extravaganza of 2010 kept the sport in the ESPN headlines during times of the year when no basketball was being played. LeBron’s primetime special, “The Decision,” was one of the highest rated NBA programs in history. That doesn’t even factor in all the media coverage of speculation regarding those players in the years leading up to the big moments. All things considered, the front office would probably prefer to keep the free publicity.

Now assuming a franchise tag were instituted as part of the new CBA, it would protect Thunder fans for the next 10-15 years. Using the tag, Sam Presti’s need to woo players like Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden into remaining in the 405 would be minimized. They would not be able to leave unless he decided they were expendable. That would be great news for Oklahoma City fans who would hate to lose their homegrown talent.

The downside would come when this core breaks down and/or begins retiring. Where the franchise tag protects us now, it would restrict our ability to replace these players once their glory days have passed.