Are NFL players paid enough?

This year the NBA offseason has really overshadowed the NFL offseason. With massive trades and free agent signings, some of the more notable contacts in the news were that of Klay Thompson (5 years, $190million), Kevin Durant (4 years, $164 million) and (3 years, $103 million). Next season, 7 players will have base salaries above $37 million. Comparing this to the NFL, only 3 players will have a base salary above $20 million (they are Kirk Cousins, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston). This topic of discussion has come up many time and was raised again by Rams running back Todd Gurley recently. So why are NFL players not making the same money?

Football players are being underpaid based on the above figures. I know Marcus Mariota will lead the Titans to a Superbowl one day but he should be the second highest paid player next season surely?

Yes, the figures above a slightly misleading. Let me explain a few differences between the two leagues first of all. In football, contracts are very much linked to the position you play. Quarterbacks earn more than a running back for example. Taking Todd Gurley, he became the highest paid running back last offseason getting a 4 year, $57.5 million contract having been a leading offensive weapon for a number of years at the Rams. The same offseason, Jimmy Garoppolo signed a 5 year, $137.5 Million contract with the San Francisco 49ers after starting 5 games the previous season. In the NBA, players are paid on the basis of their abilities rather than their position.

Another big difference is the contract structure. NBA contracts have high base salaries each year. There may also be performance bonuses but the majority of the top earners in the NBA are guaranteed their base salary. The NFL works in a different manner. Contracts are often broken up into different bonuses with a relatively low base salary. This bonuses can include signing bonus, rooster bonus (if you make the 53 man roster), incentives (could be a wide variety of items such as games played in percentage, win percentage or weather the teams makes the playoffs/superbowl) and workout bonuses (the player must attend team workouts).

In truth, this is an area that has been changing in the NFL world and will likely continue to do so. Kirk Cousins signed a $90 million, 3 year with the vast majority guaranteed base salary. Hence, why he makes the list of NFL players in the opening paragraph. Mariota and Winston are second and third on that list as they are in the last year of their rookie contracts which are structured in a way to benefit the player financially (a large base salary with little bonuses based on performance) if the team exercises the 5th year option on their contracts. Both the Titans and Buccs have done this. The stat many have been slightly misleading (soz) but I needed to get your attention somehow.

Of coarse, the regular NBA season lasts for 82 games while the NFL lasts for 16. That is over 5 times as many games. However for me, the biggest factor in all this is the team’s cap space. Both the NFL and NBA set a budget that each franchise can not exceed when handing out contracts. In 2019, the NFL’s cap space is $188.2 million and the NBA’s $109 million. With a 53 man roster in the NFL that averages to $3.5 million per player while the NBA has 15 man rosters averaging to $7.2 million per player. Also, NBA franchises have the ability to exceed this cap space if necessary but will pay a tax for this. There is no wiggle room in the NFL other restructuring contracts to meet the salary cap in a given year. Looking at this alone, it’s no wonder NBA player make more.

So why is there a salary cap there in the first place?

The salary cap is there to promote competition between teams that is not dictated by the financial backing of the franchise. Makes sense. An example of what could happen if there was no cap space would be to study European soccer. Powerhouse teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester City and Paris St. Germain(PSG) dominate their domestic leagues. PSG have won the Ligue 1 6 out of the last 7 years. during the 2018-19 season, the average player at PSG makes $8 million a year. The next best average in the league is Marseille with $2.8 million. Montpellier who finished 10th overall had an average salary of $530,000.

Well then salary caps are good so, right?

Depends on who you ask. Salary caps are an advantage of course to the franchise owners who will not have to overspend on players. While players do demand more and more money, the yearly increase in salary cap and the set rookie salaries governed by the collective bargaining agreement, allow a growth in salaries to increase but not at a massive rate. The other positive that I can see is the rule that forces teams to spend at least an average 89% of the cap salary over a 4 year period. This means teams must still play players to the league standards regardless of the team’s active roster. The 4 year period average is important as it allows teams to go below that average to allow for extra cap space in the future for rebuilding.

The negative of the cap space is really seen from the players point of view. If everyone needs to eat from the same pie, no one can have it all. And there has been examples of players taking less than their fair share to strengthen their rooster. Tom Brady has reportedly done this over the course of his career at the Patriots with some analysts claiming he could have made in the reign of $60-$100 million more but restructured contracts to allow money to be used to strengthen the roster in positions of concern. And it sure has worked for him with 5 Superbowl rings, countless income streams due to endorsements and a claim to being the greatest that ever played he game. Of coarse, the vast majority of players are not like Brady and tried to take as much of the pie as possible or demanded a move.

Will this ever change?

The only way for NFL players to make as much as their NBA counterparts is to have the NFL cap space increased significantly or even removed. The cap space is part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed between NFL (including the owners) and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). The current agreement was signed in August 2011 after a lockout by the NFL (starting in March 2011) and the main difference between the parties at the time was around player salaries and benefits. With this agreement’s end due at the end of the 2020 season, don’t be surprised to start hearing more players talking to the media about salaries. I can imagine there will be a push to allow bigger cap space from the NFLPA but it is not something that the NFL will allow happen lightly. I imagine we could see alot more drama unfold when the time comes to sign a new deal.