In 1987, Bill Daughtry and I hosted a one-off cable television show called “Between the Lines.” It was a sports business conversation, the kind of dialogue that cable TV, sports talk radio and newspapers don’t like touching. SportsChannel New York’s Michael Lardner passed on the program because of the content.
As far as Lardner and other regional cable sports network TV executives, the content was strictly X-rated. The show touched upon a subject they did not want to expose to their viewers. How sports really worked as a business.
The guest, the National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Lawrence Fleischer, was discussing the then collective bargaining negotiations between his players and the National Basketball Association owners and very early into the presentation Fleischer explained why the NBA didn’t need a draft and how the draft was created to artificially lower salaries.
That’s the real reason for a draft.
Owners don’t want to bid for players but the sports media plays up the draft as a necessary tool for teams.
The drafts in all American pro sports leagues work the same; the teams with the poorest records get the highest draft picks. The NBA and NHL have “draft lotteries,” which means the teams with the worst record might not get the first pick. The lesser performing teams theoretically get the better players but Fleischer punctured that notion early in the show.
“The draft is an interesting example,” said Fleischer in the 1987 interview. “It was something that evolved way back when, when there were no opportunities to be organized or have any say as to their future.
“As a result, it has been accepted by the media and the fans as something that must exist. It doesn’t have to exist, it doesn’t serve as any useful function. (In the 1980s) The Boston Celtics win every year, the Los Angeles Lakers win every year. It is just a means of holding down initial salaries.”
Fleischer’s words in 1987 still resonate in sports. In 2011, the National Football League owners locked out National Football League Players Association personnel from the 32 teams until a new collective bargaining agreement was reached. A deal was cut in July and one of the new provisions of the CBA was cutting the salaries of drafted players.
The first player selected, Cam Newton, could no longer ask for $78 million over six years with $50 million of that in guaranteed money. Instead, Newton could be offered a four year deal worth $22.03 million or substantially less than half of what Sam Bradford got from the St. Louis Rams ownership in 2010.
The money saved by reducing draftees’ contracts would be spent on veteran and proven players. There would be a major transfer of dollars from all draftees’ contracts to older performers starting with the 2011 draftees.
The NFL Draft is big business to everyone including the players, teams, the league and league partners, The Walt Disney Company’s ESPN and the NFL’s cable TV network.
It also puts money into the pockets of “Draftniks” or wonks who just grade college football players.
The NFL draft has become more than a cottage industry. It has made stars out of analysts like Mel Kiper Jr. and brought minor celebrity to others who do nothing but watch college football games between August and January and study players on videotape the rest of the year.
The sports press will cover the teams’ “War Rooms,” where multimillion dollar decisions will be made. On the three draft days, football fans clad in their favorite team’s jersey will pour into Radio City Music Hall for the free event looking like escapees from the Halloween Day Parade in Greenwich Village. It’s a veritable football orgy in April, more than two and one-half months after the Super Bowl and almost three before teams open training camp.
But is the NFL draft legal? Doesn’t it violate antitrust laws and artificially drive down the price that, say, an Andrew Luck or a Robert Griffin III could get on the open market if there was true competition for their services? Doesn’t it prevent companies, in this case NFL teams, from bidding for talent?
Football fans come out of hibernation in their best tailgate-stadium attire to celebrate what is essentially a restraint of trade. NFL owners are able to stage a draft because the Players Association has given them a go-ahead through the Collective Bargaining process. So it’s time to salute the most perfect form of socialism ever invented. The NFL, where all 32 owners share money, has devised a way of divvying up college athletes that under most other circumstances would be illegal.
In essence, NFL owners have perfected a system to the point at which they don’t have to compete for the top college students, who are eager to enter the unique business world that is professional football. The teams automatically get the top applicants. The college players buy into the notion that they don’t need choices. And maybe the top players don’t because they are guaranteed millions of dollars in signing bonuses after the draft. The drafted players are guaranteed jobs.
Very few players have bucked the system. Ohio State linebacker Tom Cousineau was taken as the top overall pick in 1979 by the Buffalo Bills, but he didn’t want to play for the Bills and signed with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes. In those days, the CFL had some money to throw around and the NFL wasn’t handing out $5 million signing bonuses like it does today.
The only way for a top athlete to exercise any control over where he goes is by insulting the city he may be going to or by playing another sport. In 1983, John Elway couldn’t stand the thought of playing for Robert Irsay’s Baltimore Colts and signed a contract with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. While Elway was patrolling the outfield for the New York-Penn League’s Oneonta Yankees, the frustrated Colts dealt his rights to the Denver Broncos.
In 1986, Bo Jackson couldn’t see himself running behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line, so he signed a contract with the Kansas City Royals. Jackson did eventually play in the NFL for the Los Angeles Raiders. When Eli Manning was a top pick, he wasn’t too pleased with the prospect of playing in San Diego, so he forced a trade to the New York Giants.
The last time the top college players had a real career choice was between 1983 and 1985, when the United States Football League was in existence. Players like Jim Kelly had a choice between the USFL’s Houston Gamblers and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. He went to Houston. In 1983, Herschel Walker signed with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals after his junior season because, at that point, the NFL did not allow underclassmen to enter the draft.
Nearly three decades later, that option is defunct, and college athletes with highly specialized skills have no say about where they ply their trade. College applicants are also slotted into a sliding salary scale. The No. 1 pick will get the most money; the final player chosen gets the least. That means players chosen in the final round would be better off not being taken because “free agents” can shop their talents around and wind up with a higher salary than a player taken in the seventh round.
As it stands, there is very little a college player seeking entry into the NFL workforce can do to change the system until 2020, when the present Collective Bargaining Agreement ends. Lawsuits won’t work because the NFL has the antitrust exemption thanks to its most valuable employees—the players. The NFL draft is the perfect system for the owners to control costs and limit players’ options, and that alone, at least for the owners, is a cause for celebration.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on “The Politics of Sports Business.” His book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at bickley.com and Amazon and featured on Google books.