The rationale made sense. The NFL wasn't doing any damage to its current players, which, by many accounts, is the only driving force of the players association (NFLPA). Over the last year, NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw has come under heavy fire from former players who have claimed he is a puppet for ownership that has turned a blind eye toward those who laid the foundation of what is now the unquestioned pastime of 21st century America.
Upshaw himself has stated that he represents the players currently in the league and that they are the focus of his activities as NFLPA honcho – not those who don't fall under his jurisdiction.
So it strikes many as ominous that Upshaw, speaking to a symposium of mostly unsigned players who are not yet members of the NFLPA, responded to comments made by Goodell concerning escalating rookie salaries. Obviously, incoming rookies are going to be members of the NFLPA. Any contracts signed this year will be subject to the same escalations they have had in previous drafts. The top pick sets some sort of record – whether for total contract value or guaranteed money. Goodell, sensing that future players not currently in the league could be used as a concession chip in the next round of labor talks, summarized what many have said for a long time. While it was unfortunate – some could argue his language was baiting – that he used Miami first-overall pick Jake Long as his example, his point was clear: Long is already one of the highest-paid left tackles in the NFL and he has never taken a pro snap.
It should be noted that, while first-round picks get huge contracts, the 53-man rosters are made up of many more players that are "Day Two" picks than those that are premium picks. Of the 53-man Vikings roster that will leave Mankato in August, only four of them will be first-round draft picks of the Vikings – Adrian Peterson, Chad Greenway, Kevin Williams and Bryant McKinnie. Everybody else was had for a much cheaper price on their rookie contracts.
It is a fine line that you walk in such a matter. The NFL is a performance-based league. No contracts are guaranteed and those that include significant guaranteed money are based on the belief that the player will remain healthy and live up to the agreement. With the pay scale in the NFL jumping forward, so has the money that is required to acquire "franchise" players. Players deserve as much as they can get because, unlike the NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball, a five-year contract in the NFL is a one-year contract if that player blows an ACL.
That is why Goodell using the word "ridiculous" in terms of Long's contract was ill-advised. Long is a member of the union because he has signed a deal. He is under the union leadership of Upshaw, so he had every right to attack what Goodell said. But, in speaking to the rookie symposium, many not yet under his wing, Upshaw responded by saying the following:
"We're not in the position to try to take money from anyone. Our job is to make sure you get as much (money) as you're entitled to and not be restricted by anything else. We have never agreed to such a system. I don't see us agreeing to such a system in the future."
You may want to read that quote again. It is rare when a line is drawn in the sand as clearly as this one is being drawn. Was Goodell wrong in singling out Long in discussion of the escalating salaries of rookies? Yes. His comment was directed toward a player who is already under his umbrella – unlike the vast majority of first-round picks, Long is signed and officially a member of the NFL. Is Upshaw wrong for using that comment as a rallying cry for players who aren't yet under his auspices? Yes. Upshaw's job is not to draw battle lines with those who technically are not yet members of his union.
There are still two years for the two sides to move forward with a new labor agreement. The players aren't willing to make concessions and shouldn't be. They agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that still doesn't give guarantees beyond signing and performance bonuses. The fact that the last CBA gave the players a significantly higher percentage of the revenues was not their fault. The owners had the right under the agreement to back out if they didn't believe the landscape was fair. They did – at about the earliest possible time. They knew a firestorm was coming. Perhaps Goodell's statement was meant as a peace offering – in essence saying that the league will still pay its veteran players contracts comparable to their performance, but will set those contracts of the league's new employees closer the entry-level than to top-tier pay.
Whether well-intended or not, the Goodell statement has been met with the current-day equivalent to a 17th century French glove slap across the face. Pistols at dawn. Two years from now, many may point back to this exchange as the beginning of the process of heel-digging that leads to an impasse that will hurt not only the players and owners but the game itself. Both Goodell and Upshaw could have joined Denny Green on the proverbial "high road" and not made their statements. Neither did. A bad situation is now worse. This is the time where a centrist needs to step forward – whether that be a respected veteran player or an owner like Zygi Wilf. The pie is big enough for everyone, but, if the knot in the rope currently being pulled by the owners and the NFLPA gets much tighter, it will snap. That needs to be prevented. There is still time, but if rigid lines continue to be drawn, that process will only get more difficult as time goes by.