When the NFL's current television contract expires in three years, it is my belief that future contracts will be a combination of conventional television (regular season) and pay-per-view (playoffs). Total team revenues from TV will skyrocket from the current $17 million per club annually. And at that point the players will be, proportionately, the lowest-paid performers in the entertainment industry. So while owners scramble to move their teams to larger television markets and wangle better stadium leases, players are denied the same freedom of movement. It doesn't wash.
I am not certain the owners should be criticized simply because they are trying to maximize profits by holding down player salaries. That is the way it is and must be, because player salaries constitute their single largest expense—58% of revenues, compared with 53% in basketball and 40% in baseball. But the hypocrisy is galling. The owners would have the public believe that the only way they can function as businessmen in the free market of America is to deny a free market to the players.
And while the owners do this, real heroes are walking among us. Every player at the end of his career who is on strike is doing it not for himself but for a higher purpose: for those who retired before him and those who will come after. Everson Walls of the Cowboys and Dan Fouts of the Chargers, to name just two, have already signed what may be their last contracts; they gain nothing by the strike. The rookie Brian Bosworth is signed for 10 years; he, too, will gain nothing by the strike. In those players, and in others like them, we are witnessing something special.
The issue of free agency, or some variation of it, is so important that even if negotiations on that point fail, the players should return to work without a contract. If no contracts exist, then they have free agency. The resulting increase in salaries would easily outweigh any other benefits derived from a collective bargaining agreement. Then, if the players want to force the issue to obtain an agreement, they should sue to invalidate the college draft. The draft is far more important to the owners' idea of the order of professional football than is free agency. If such a suit were filed, pity the person who got in the way as the stampede began back to the bargaining table.
My preference would be a system of free agency coupled with a team's right of first refusal on a player who has an offer from another franchise. This would curtail freedom of movement but maintain freedom to establish value. It would be an accommodation to owners and fans who desire continuity of personnel.
But how far we have strayed from the glaring issues of injuries, safety, health care and life span. Something can be done immediately. The number of traumas to which players may be subjected must be limited by shorter practices, less contact in practice and fewer two-a-day sessions. Improved equipment is needed. Steroids and amphetamines must be banned. Greater control should be imposed regarding early return to contact after injuries. Health care should continue after retirement.
I mean, we are talking about 15 years of life. Fifteen years.