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Melvin Gordon Vs The CBA

The National Football League has been ruled by money since it’s inception in 1919. At first, a lack of money bonded the league’s original teams in a way that is almost indescribable today. While there were rivalries in the early era, they were fueled with a hope for a better tomorrow.

As the decades went along and the money increased, players wanted larger portions of the pie. There were strikes in 1968, 1970, 1974, 1982 and 1987 with minimal to no benefits added for the players. What is astounding is that in the first 75 years of the NFL there was never a salary cap which has been enforcing player’s salaries only since 1994. This was beneficial for the league because now any team could win the Super Bowl in any given year. Smaller market teams such as the Green Bay Packers could financially compete with larger market teams such as the New York Giants. This eventually helped increase attendance and continuously set records for television ratings

Unfortunately, there were no real guidelines for what to pay newly drafted rookies. Players drafted in the first round could get tens of millions of dollars without having ever stepped on an NFL field. The last first pick in the NFL Draft before the new CBA, Sam Bradford, signed a six-year $78 million contract after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in 2010. This did not sit well with the veterans who went on strike in 2011. Unlike the previous strikes, this one was truly beneficial for the veterans. Rookies now had to earn their big paydays like everyone else in the NFL.

Recently, players who were drafted after 2011 have been holding out for more money. These players include Melvin Gordon and Le’Veon Bell, two of the most talented running backs in the NFL. Bell recently spent two years battling the Steelers brass for a long term contract which would pay him a star’s salary. While he was given a franchise tag in 2017, paying him more than $12 million, he and the Steelers could not reach a compromise in 2018. As a result, he sat out the entire 2018 season before signing with the New York Jets for a guaranteed $25 million.

Gordon recently asked for a new contract or a trade despite being due $5 million next season. He is going into his fifth season, a contract year, and will need a new contract after the season anyway. This is becoming a major problem for the NFL as these players were drafted with the hope that they would be the feature running back for the franchise.

The 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was beneficial for the owners as well as for the players. However, it has become a major thorn in the side of the league due to the various hold outs of some of the league’s most promising players. This article will attempt to explain the various holes in the CBA in regards to highly drafted rookies and how the NFL can address these issues after the CBA expires following the 2020 season.

The Five Year Plan

When a rookie is drafted, he has very little say in how much he can earn due to the wage scale introduced in 2011. This is primarily due to the Total Rookie Compensation Pool (TRCP) which correlates with the Salary Cap. The Total Rookie Compensation Pool dictates the amount each team can spend on a drafted rookie. Just like the salary cap, the TRCP goes up or down each year and is always following the salary cap.

An example the CBA gives is if the salary cap goes up 9%, the TRCP would go up 7%. This is because the TRCP must increase or decrease by the same percentage as the salary cap up to 5% plus 50% of any increase above 5% by the salary cap.

First-round picks get a four-year contract with a fifth-year option. The first three years cannot be renegotiated but the fourth and fifth years of the contract can be revisited. Unfortunately, by the fifth year, the player is generally doing better than the money demands and he refuses the fifth-year option. This is what happened with both Gordon and Bell. Both were the cream of the crop at their position and they had exceeded expectations. Their respective clubs had only so much wiggle room with how much to give them for the fifth year. On top of this, the franchises had to worry about the salary cap and could only give the player so much money.

All parties are at fault. The player wants more, the CBA didn’t give the franchises enough wiggle room for the fifth-year option, and the front offices of those franchises did not look far enough to see how they could be in cap trouble in five years. The salary cap is a science and can really mess up a franchise for years. This is why franchises have entire departments dedicated to the salary cap. There is a way to avoid the yearly heartbreak of a young player’s departure from his original team.

A Better Way

The most important issue to tackle is the growing want and need of the players. While some do deserve a salary increase, a vast majority do not. The reasons behind their not deserving a bump in salary are varied. Some have had injury-riddled careers and some have had developmental issues. Other players are simply greedy and demand salaries which seem outrageous to most NFL franchises.

The NFL needs to amend the CBA to give teams more flexibility in rookie contracts. Obviously, this is hard to accomplish because no one knows how a player will handle the NFL in his first three years. The NFL also has a rule stipulating that no rookie contract can have an annual increase exceeding the first year by more than 25%.

However, a loophole in this may be to increase the player performance incentives. The biggest hurdle with this idea is that currently, Player Performance Incentives fall under the 25% Increase Rule. If the NFL were to amend this and allow the performance incentive to be in a separate category then perhaps the players would be less inclined to cause a ruckus by demanding a trade or holding out for more money. Interestingly, the CBA stipulates that performance incentives must be based on playtime alone, not for improvement in performance.

Financially speaking, think of this idea like being paid in cash and not having to pay a tax. The player would still have to pay the government for what they earn but the franchise would not have to worry about the ramifications of disregarding the 25% Increase Rule.

Lastly, front offices need to step up in these moments. The CBA is long, arduous, and confusing and it is obvious in these situations that front offices are succumbing to paralysis by analysis. Their hands are tied due to the many rules which heavily restrict how much they can pay a rookie. However, these excuses are hurting franchises desperate for an identity at the position. Hopefully, the owners will speak up at the next negotiation meeting regarding the new CBA.

David Hegler

Author David Hegler

BS in Business Management from Azusa Pacific University. Fanatical 49er fan. Avid fan of all Bay Area sports teams.

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