While NFL free agents Karlos Dansby and Julius Peppers struck it rich when they signed big contracts this week, this season’s free agent signing period is a big disappointment for many NFL players. While it is tension between the big and small markets that caused the owners to opt out of the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the breakdown of the agreement has been a burden to the players.
Because the collective bargaining agreement has not been renewed, players must now complete 6 years of play, rather than 4, before they are eligible for free agency. Because of headline grabbing signings like Peppers’ $42 million in guaranteed money, you might think that the young men who play in the NFL are wealthy beyond imagination but for most of them, that is not the case. In 2009, the median NFL salary was $770,000 and the average career lasts about 3 years, which shouldn’t be a surprise for those of you who follow former Syracuse players’ fortunes in the NFL. So most of the drafted players get some guaranteed money based on their draft slot and then toil for minimum salary until their career is ended. The lucky ones were able to make it through four seasons, establish their ability, and sign a multi-year, high dollar free agent contract at the age of 25 or 26. For those rare few the big deal is a once per career opportunity.
Players whose free agency opportunities were put on hold this year have to face the fact that they may be injured or have an off year in 2010, harming their chances for a 2011 pay day (assuming a new agreement is in place, which is a leap at this point). For some of these guys, they might realistically be eligible for free agency in 2012 if they can hang in there, but by that point they will be in their late twenties and not ideal candidates for the long-term deals that bring guaranteed millions.
It’s hard for some to feel sorry for people who earn $1 million or more by age 25 but considering the habits of some players I find myself shaking my head in pity as I watch the NFL draft. When former Buffalo Bill Travis Henry was unable to meet his child support obligations, he cited his expenditures on three cars and $250,000 on jewelry as modest compared to his peers. Cars and jewelry are terrible investments so it is no wonder many of the players are broke soon after their careers end. The NFL is a revenue and profit generating machine for the owners, but the vast majority of the players are chewed up and spit out.