The Tag Debate: An Impassioned Response

In a recent article, our own "Hawkstorian" wrote eloquently about the inequities of the franchise tag. For his trouble, he received an interesting response from an unexpected reader.

Last week, I pled my case for the destruction of the franchise tag. In theory, I should have been cheered by the players and booed by the owners, but our league is much more complicated than even I imagined.

I received a blistering missive from an individual who I would normally expect to take the player’s point of view on this issue. This person has a real job that involves the representation of NFL players, so his perspective weighs much stronger than mine and comes from a more emotional place. His message contained such pleasantries as, “What are you smoking?”, and, “At least I use my own name when I write something.”

He also referred to me as an “expert”. In the modern age of irony, being “complimented” in quotations is usually not a compliment. If he had called me a “moron”, that would have been just fine.

I share all this not to diminish his viewpoints, but to convey a level of passion to which I was unduly insensitive. The fact is that the franchise and transition tags are necessary components of an entire system that serves to protect around 2,000 NFL players. My correspondent accused me of presenting the union as selling out its star players. He said the stars will get their money no matter what system they work under, and the tags are important enough to the owners that they lead to the numerous other benefits that players receive.

“What would you have the players give up?” he demands to know, asking for specifics I can’t provide.

It is true that star players are inherently protected no matter what system they’re under. In addition, one could argue that the union exists (in part) to ensure that money is spread around to all players and not just collected by the Vicks and Mannings and Alexanders of the world. The true measure of an effective Collective Bargaining Agreement is the benefits that accrue to the rest of the players.

Lesser players are protected in ways that aren’t often publicized. The CBA has careful and detailed rules pertaining to how an injured player is treated. Here are a few examples.

Article XII of the CBA provides for payouts to any player whose career ends due to injury at the end of the previous season. Several Seahawks were released, at least in part, because of injuries that will prevent them from playing for all or part of the 2005 season. Anthony Simmons, Chris Terry, Damien Robinson and Bobby Taylor will all receive $250,000 (cap-free) to help ease their transition into civilian life. That $250K is the maximum benefit. Chris Davis will receive 50% of his lost 2005 contract, or $190K. In most cases, these players endured severe injuries. Fortunately for them, the union stood up for otherwise discarded players.

If a player is under contract and injured during the 2005 season, he is protected as well. Recently, center Joey Hollenbeck was injured in off-season workouts and landed on injured reserve. If he stays on injured reserve all year, he doesn’t earn his entire contract, because he has a “split” deal, which means he’s paid less if he can’t play. A minimum $230,000 deal is knocked down to $135,000 and he’ll earn that pay in 1/17th increments once the season starts, so long as his recovery from labrum surgery keeps him off the field.

The team can release him at any point, but if the player feels he was released before his body was healed, he can file an injury grievance. The matter is then reviewed by an independent medical expert. This expert will determine how many weeks the player needed to recover. Based on the results of that ruling, the NFL will award the player that many weeks of the split contract. Last year, LB Byron Hardmon was awarded 13 weeks pay for an injury sustained in the final pre-season game.

Guys like Hardmon and Hollenbeck were extreme long-shots to ever play real downs in the NFL, and yet they were compensated for the physical sacrifices they made pursuing their dreams. The union could easily sell out these players in an effort to kill other provisions (like the franchise tag), and yet that would defeat the true meaning of a union, which is to protect ALL members, not just the elite few.

As a fan, I still believe the franchise tag is an antiquated distraction that unfairly singles out a few players. The bigger picture, however, is that the CBA is an entire document of checks and balances that are sewn together to provide stability to the entire game. If one domino topples, the powers involved fear that the entire agreement would be thrown open, and key provisions could be brought into question. Neither side seems interested in that scenario.

I’m not suggesting that injury protections would or should ever be brought into question, but the entire financial structure of salaries, bonuses, uncapped year, minimum salaries is a carefully constructed house of cards. The union is taking a strong step in pushing the owners to expand the pool of dollars shared with the players. Negotiations on a new agreement will be sparse until the owners agree on a new revenue sharing plan gives the players not just a bigger piece of the pie, but a bigger pie.

Meanwhile, Shaun Alexander will make due with “only” (there’s those ironic quotes, again) $6.323 million in 2005 when he gets around to signing his one-year franchise tender. Perhaps he takes solace in the fact that his “sacrifice” (ahem) will benefit his teammates, many of whom would be thrilled with one-tenth that amount.

"The Hawkstorian" writes about Seahawks history, the salary cap, and many other things for Seahawks.NET on an alarmingly regular basis. You can reach him at hawkstorian@yahoo.com.


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