Saturday, May 16, 2009

More athletes should take pay cuts

A pro athlete's career span is finite, since they have to get what they can while they can, because if you think someone is still going to be playing linebacker in the NFL at age 40, you're sadly mistaken ... or you do play linebacker for the New England Patriots.

One question, though, as a fan, is why you don't see more players take pay cuts, especially in salary cap leagues. Pro Football Talk, via one of the Bay Area beat reporters, reported that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich had his $2.23-million US salary cut to $950,000, a haircut of more than a million dollars.

Sometimes players do take less than market value to re-sign with their old club as a free agent, but it's not often you see this happen in the NFL. Typically, if someone is making too much to fit under the salary cap, he gets cut and someone else is signed, typically to a contract whose dollar value is inflated by the team and the media. The pieces on the chessboard get changed and people watching feel just as removed from the people on the field as they were before, because there's another guy playing the position that was manned by Jeff Ulbrich, although in a sport like football, most fans might not have noticed Jeff Ulbrich.

In the days before free agency when players weren't able to go freely from team to team (which, by the way, helps make franchises more valuable, which is why it's a mug's game to grumble about athletes "with no loyalty"), players were bound to their teams. Salary reductions from one season to next happened fairly regularly. Former Blue Jays manager Jim Fregosi, as a long-in-the-tooth third baseman with the Texas Rangers in 1974 (the year before baseball players won the right to free agency), had his salary cut from $90,000. He told sportswriter Mike Shropshire:
"You have to figure out how to prolong your shelf life. That's the key to longevity in this racket for players like me. Don't get pushy at contract time and wear out your welcome. Baseball players are just like motor oil and toilet paper ... a commodity with a set market price. If more players thought like I do, they'd last longer."
That represents a different school of thought and a sports world where there was much less talent to go around than in 2009. A couple decades before Fregosi, even Hall of Famers such as Robin Roberts (a Roy Halladay-type pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies, whose 28-win season in 1952 has not been matched by any National League pitcher since) expected a paycut if they had an off-year.

That was also a world with no one on the scale of Scott Boras or Drew Rosenhaus; some teams were still trying to get players to negotiate contracts without an agent.

This is not some lament for a bygone, backwards era. It's a lament for a lack of intellectual honesty. The way it works in the NFL is a player signs a big deal, but the announced dollar figure often includes bogus bonus clauses that will never be achieved, like a quarterback getting $2 million if he participates in 75% of all special teams plays (quarterbacks are never used on special teams, except as the holder on kicking plays). A five-year, $30-million contract might sound impressive when you're reading the sports headlines in the morning on, but it's not a true picture of the player's compensation, or what his value is to the franchise. The player might get cut after a couple seasons and only see a fraction of that original dollar figure.

Meantime, fans get the idea that all 53 players on a NFL team are getting obscenely rich, when in reality, someone such as Jeff Ulbrich is making something much closer to well, about $950,000. Who knows, maybe if fans saw more of this, they wouldn't resent the jocks for making so much money if they saw them feel a financial pinch (instead of sneering 10 years later when you read about the former All-Pro who's broke).

The San Francisco 49ers should get rewarded for their honesty.

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