NFL players increasingly want to use their leverage, and they realize how little they have
By JERRY BREWER | The Washington Post | Published: September 6, 2019
After maximizing a smidgeon of leverage and forcing a trade to his preferred destination, Jadeveon Clowney resisted praise that he had executed a spectacular NFL power play.
Although disappointed Houston wanted to place the franchise tag on him, the Pro Bowl defensive end was willing to play under that one-year deal until word leaked the Texans might trade him after he signed the tender. So he did the only thing that gave him a measure of control: He refused to sign.
He stared down the Texans. They had to trade him to a team of his choosing or else the impasse would persist. Houston blinked finally and dealt him to Seattle for lackluster assets. Now Clowney gets to play for a team he trusts will showcase the best of him, increasing the likelihood of a lucrative multiyear contract offer from someone after the season. In addition, to get Clowney to sign the tender and consummate the trade, the Seahawks agreed not to place a second franchise tag on him. He will be a true unrestricted free agent in 2020.
Yet for a player who showed the intellectual acuity to beat the NFL's restrictive, team-friendly free agency system, Clowney doesn't gloat about breaking out of the straitjacket.
"I don't think I decided that," Clowney said of the Texans' trade. "They decided that. I didn't have no say-so in that. I just held the cards of where I end [up] playing at. They decided to get me out."
As the 100th NFL season begins, there are more indications than ever that football players want to take command of their careers in the same manner that basketball and baseball players have for quite some time. In the NBA, the current period of heavy player movement and yearly free agency bonanzas is considered part of a seismic empowerment era. Stars have manipulated the NBA system to gain authority in the team-building process, and the front offices — owners, general managers and coaches — now function more like lead recruiters than overlords. NFL players have watched and learned, grown more envious and reimagined their own possibilities. The push for power in football has arrived, but the fight to actually attain it is far more complicated and toilsome.
Despite all the rounds of labor wars, the owners still dominate the players, especially when it comes to freedom of movement. With a hard salary cap, franchise and transition tags to restrict free agency and five-year contracts for first-round picks on a rookie wage scale, the NFL specializes in tying up its players. It's not such a bad thing until you realize the incongruity between contractual obligation on the player side and flexibility on the team side.
You cannot stress enough the hypocrisy of loyalty in the NFL. It is shrewd NFL business for teams to be disloyal, but somehow players are selfish and greedy when they try to advocate for themselves.
Discussion of holdouts and contract squabbles overwhelmed the lead-up to the regular season. From a player standpoint, they felt more like leverage plays than pure money grabs. Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott, the recipient of a sweet new six-year $90 million deal, effectively was saying, "Prove to me, now that you're trying to pay all this young talent, that I'm the most important Cowboy." Clowney's point was, "If y'all don't want me, I'm going to control where I go." Washington left tackle Trent Williams is still making the point, "To hell with you and your crappy medical staff for messing me up."
But the entire NFL system is built to discourage players from raging against it. You might have to sit out an entire year (Le'Veon Bell) just to get something resembling your way. Even Kirk Cousins, who signed an unprecedented fully guaranteed $84-million deal with Minnesota before last season, played under great scrutiny and uncertainty for two franchise-tag seasons in Washington before being set free.
On occasion, a player such as Elliott "wins," but don't expect that to be the norm. If we're amid an era of holdouts, there will be far more Melvin Gordon-like cases. The Los Angeles Chargers running back — a really nice player with a nose for the end zone, but not quite a bell cow — represents why five-year, scaled rookie contracts can be cruel, especially for running backs. The 26-year-old just wants that one substantial payday before he's deemed to have too much mileage on his body. In a league that now uses up and tosses aside tailbacks more than ever, it's a reasonable request. But the Chargers have little desire and urgency to make it happen, and if he continues to hold out, Gordon likely won't gain anything more than an extended, expensive vacation full of fines.
The players need a more favorable collective bargaining agreement to gain true power. Otherwise, they are just hoping to get lucky as they test their teams' tolerance for drama. It worked for Khalil Mack a year ago. The Redskins seem adamant about not letting it work for Williams. Until the player loyalty requirement ends or gets minimized in this disloyal sport, true NFL player empowerment will be more aspirational than practical.
Thinking back to the way Clowney used his leverage, the NFL Players Association might need to do the same with the league's foolish desire to expand to 18 games. Playoff expansion remains more likely, with the players' stance continuing to be that it would take extraordinary concessions from the owners for them to support a longer season.
What qualifies as extraordinary? For the players, the challenging part always has been their large and diverse membership. The rank-and-file players have a set of priorities, which differ from the priorities of the really good and secure players, which differ from the priorities of the superstars. When it's time to negotiate a CBA, the diversity of issues complicates the mission. And in the past, when those negotiations have turned into fights, the owners have been able to exploit the other side's divisions.
In the NFL, change demands some nastiness and nerve, and while many might debate the impact NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith has had the past 10 years, there's no doubt he is willing to take and deliver punches to help the union. But what's so important to the players that they'll stand their ground, no matter what?
An 18-game season — the revenue generated by an 18-game season — may be the key to getting the owners to bend more this time. But the players should not consider extending the season, in any form, without receiving the ultimate incentive: major concessions that create a more balanced business arrangement in which they aren't under team control and riding the loyalty/disloyalty seesaw for such an excessive amount of time.
In professional sports, athlete power lies in two areas: freedom of movement and/or contracts that reflect market value and offer security. Some NFL players are so great and bold that they can make a power move, and throughout the league, that has led to some enlightenment. But empowerment? In the current system, its potential is heavily restricted.