That system, farcical to many, is the rookie salary scale. DeLamielleure, sounding ready to strap on pads, is one of 78 Pro Football Hall of Famers who recently signed a letter from the Fourth and Goal group of retired players complaining about the system and demanding a change. However, DeLamielleure and the letter – posted on the Fourth and Goal website and sent to media members – didn’t stop in detailing inequities of rookie salaries – player agents were accused of manipulating the system in the process.
“It is disappointing that this system of rewarding unproven players with guaranteed bonuses has been allowed to continue for another year,” the letter reads. “Player agents are also reaping the benefits of the current system and do not want to see it change. If bonuses were standardized, there would be no need for a player agent to get paid for negotiating that part of a contract. Last year player agents received approximately $14 million just from the bonus portion of the 32 rookies selected in the first round.
“We are concerned that player agents might have some influence over the NFLPA and its decision to continue this system. There was a clear conflict of interest when Gene Upshaw was at the helm and was represented by player agent Tom Condon. We hope that DeMaurice Smith is not influenced by the power, privilege and perks that these agents and their agencies have wielded in the past.”
While the agent community isn’t always portrayed in the most flattering light, here’s a big reason why that assessment is problematic: They’re trained negotiators who understand money. While some of them might be disreputable, the good ones can be a huge help to the process. Both current and former players need them.
Even DeLamielleure recognizes that fact.
“These kids who come in and have millions of dollars in their pocket, they need help with that,” he said. “I know I wouldn’t have been able to handle it by myself.”
Sadly, however, when it comes to the bigger picture, DeLamielleure and others have a blind spot about agents. That spot is created by the waves of green that are flowing to a handful of rookies who don’t appear to deserve it.
The rookie salary cap works well to keep down the salaries for the vast majority of draft picks, but no longer works for the top six to 10 players. This year, for instance, expect No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford(notes) of the St. Louis Rams to get a deal that could include nearly $50 million in guaranteed money. That comes on the heals of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) getting $41.7 million guaranteed last year as part of a six-year, $72 million contract.
Like most fans, former players, veteran players and just about anybody with common sense, those contracts and the next half-dozen or so are out of whack.
“It’s ridiculous,” DeLamielleure said. “Guys who have never played a down are making this kind of money when it should be going to veterans.”
The NFL and the NFL Players Association agree in part with the retired players. The two sides have held extensive talks on fixing the system as part of the negotiations on the collective bargaining agreement. One of the plans from the NFL would have changed the system and moved $100 million of that money to the pension fund, presumably to help player who retired prior to 1993. Those are the ones in greatest need.
The NFLPA turned that idea down for now. As a practical matter, the union is focused on the bigger issue of the overall CBA and can’t afford to give up any bargaining chips. For retired players, that led to continued frustration and now accusation that agents pushed union leadership to turn down the deal.
Coincidentally, the idea to divert $100 million from money going to rookies to the pension fund came from agent Marvin Demoff, who is considered by many NFL executives to be the greatest agent of all time.
Sadly, the impatience that the Fourth and Goal group is showing is leaving scorched earth where the union needs growth. The belief promulgated by Fourth and Goal that agents are pushing to keep the current system simply isn’t true.
“Whatever system they want is fine because we’re going to do well either way,” said Ben Dogra, a lead negotiator for Creative Artists Agency’s football division. “… If you make it slotted and an agent has to wait a few years to get paid, the only people who are going to be hurt are people just getting started in the business. The only way someone is going to be able to break in that way is if they’re coming from another business where they made money, they’re independently wealthy or they’re breaking off from another firm and taking some veteran clients with them. Otherwise, you’re going to have to wait too long to get paid on a player.”
Ultimately, Dogra said good agents will still do well for themselves whether rookies get the money or it goes to veterans.
“You still have a certain amount of money that’s going to be spent on players regardless of where it goes, right?” Dogra asked. “We’re still talking about the same percentage of money that goes to the agents. It just comes from a different place.”
That’s something that the folks at Fourth and Goal would be wise to understand as well. At such a crucial time, when a percentage point in the negotiations is worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars over time, the NFLPA needs solidarity in its ranks. Fourth and Goal needs that if it expects the union to share any more of that largesse with retired players.
Instead, Fourth and Goal is creating suspicion and mistrust in an area where it doesn’t exist.