The NFL draft allows a cabal of billion-dollar companies to control the labor market for an entire industry. The draft caps young workers’ earnings, mandates which company they work for, where they’ll live, and how long it will be until they’re able to seek a market-value wage.
And I’m all for it.
This is not the popular position among pro-labor sportswriters; fellow travelers like Patrick Hruby have long argued for the draft’s abolishment. And now that real money is finally, legally flowing to college athletes, draft-slotted rookie salaries might actually be a pay cut for some players. Why not let prospects sign whatever pro contract best suits them?
Because for all the B.S. that comes out of the league office, all the spin and positioning and turd-polishing and apologia for a League of people with more money than sense? On this issue, the company line is right.
Professional football began as a sideshow, a hyper-violent carnival attraction played by roving bands of guys with nothing to lose. The first No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, 1935 Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger, never played a professional down; he made more money as a foam-rubber salesman.
While today’s NFL is all about extracting every dollar from its world-blanketing legion of fanatics, the early NFL was all about credibility–convincing people the product on the field was worth investing their time, attention, and money in.
That the latter became the former in the span of a lifetime is testament to how well they did it.
The trick was collectivism. They split all ticket sales 60/40 between the home and away team–so the Packers of tiny Green Bay, WI pulled down big-city revenue wherever they played, and the Bears couldn’t hoard too much money by selling out Wrigley Field. Later, the teams would agree to split all retail merchandise sales and TV money Even Steven.
The draft works the same way: By giving the weakest squads dibs on the best young talent, even the crummiest team’s fortunes can quickly change–and powerhouse dynasties not run by Bill Belichick will crumble sooner rather than later.
Players fought long and hard for true free agency, with work stoppages and lawsuits alike. In 1992, they got it–but the league’s combination of revenue sharing, a hard salary cap, and a talent draft ensured that money alone wouldn’t ever make a consistent winner.
In fact, the players’ union fought hard during the 2011 lockout to cap and slot rookie salaries. Why? During the Aughties, eams desperate to sign their own Jay Berwangers before the season started had been lavishing market- and record-setting contracts on players who often wouldn’t play well enough to earn a second one. These deals were subverting the whole purpose of the draft: Perennially bad teams gifted with multiple high draft picks found themselves just as cap-strapped as top teams loaded with proven talent.
So why not scrap it all, then? No draft, no cap, just players getting paid whatever salaries they can negotiate?
Well, because we know how that story ends: Money equals wins equals money equals wins equals money.
Just look at the English Premier League: Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, shoveled billions of Euros into the furnace of a trophy-making machine, and proved that the only real way to change an English soccer club’s fortunes is selling it to someone with a bigger fortune.
Last year we saw Newcastle United fans joyously welcome their team’s sale to “The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.” That fund controls much of Saudi Arabia’s wealth, and is chaired by Saudi Arabia’s head of state, who is Mohammed bin Salman, who is the guy who ordered the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Meanwhile Chelsea is in limbo–thanks to Abramovich’s assets being frozen, thanks to him being a Russian oligarch during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But back here in the good old U.S. of A., the Cincinnati Bengals–notoriously run on the league’s skimpiest budget–were gifted Joe Burrow in 2020, took his college teammate in 2021, and immediately broke the league’s longest conference-title-game drought on the way to very nearly winning the Super Bowl.
Sure, they lost to an L.A. Rams team that’s as close to a cut-checks, win-games mercenary team as is possible to assemble in the NFL, and is owned by the same Stan Kroenke who owns the Premier League’s Arsenal–But Vegas thinks the Bengals and Rams are equally likely to win the next Super Bowl (neither are the favorite).
And Jerry Jones, the owner who’s pushed harder than anyone to reform the league’s wealth-redistributing structure into money-driven maximalism, saw his Cowboys’ own conference-title-game drought not only extend to to 26 years but slide up a rank, to fifth-longest.
When top young professional prospects were being forced to generate billions for NCAA institutions, without compensation? Yeah, they should be able to seek their fortune afterwards. But when top football talents with multiple years of college eligibility left are getting six-figure transfer deals (and middling players are getting enough to live high on the dorm-room hog and send some money back home), then the league should still be able to allocate their services in a way that keeps every single fanbase engaged all year ‘round–and keeps the revenue streams that fill players’ salary-cap pool flowing year after year, generation after generation.
Armstrong, a ProPublica reporter, says he researched Hale while co-writing a landmark piece of reporting on the victims of a serial rapist, which then became a book, which then became a Netflix series called “Unbelievable.”
And indeed, that the jurisprudence of the 17th-century Lord Chief Justice of England would be cited in Justice Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade is unbelievable!
Shortly after former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores sued the team and the league for discrimination–including an allegation of being offered $100,000 per loss to lose on purpose (see the whole “draft” and “competitive balance” thing above)–former Browns head coach Hue Jackson chimed in to say the same thing had happened to him.
Gramling and Orr’s journalism here was fantastic, acquiring much of the evidence the league used in its investigation and arbitration of Jackson’s dispute. Me and my Three & Out co-hosts interviewed Gramling after the story dropped, and he gave us even more insight on how it all went down:
This is the kind of long-form reporting, writing, news-breaking and discussion shaping we long associated with Sports Illustrated before…the unpleasantness.
It’s great to see.
In an Amercian sports culture obsessed with history but cursed with amnesia, MLS stands out as a league whose commitment to permanent transience is baked right into its logo.
Pablo is a gifted sportswriter, photojournalist, Tweeter and car guy. His perspective on his hometown’s new-old soccer team is singular, and the piece he wrote is, too.
If you’re neither on TikTok, nor shopping for femme-styled fast fashion, you’ve probably never heard of Shein (I am on TikTok, but it mostly shows me people covering anime themes on guitar, so I had never heard of Shein).
Vara–whose debut novel THE IMMORTAL KING RAO also dropped this week, and has everybody freaking out about how great it is–did the shoe-leather work of finding out how a Chinese company leveraged suspiciously low prices and credulous teen influencers to secure mind-boggling amounts of capital investment.
As every good storyteller knows, the ending must feel surprising-yet-inevitable, and this piece is more than worth reading all the way to the kicker.
Due to our family taking delivery of a whole kitchen’s worth of new appliances–and my busted-knuckle installation thereof–I didn’t make much progress this week.
My writing-accountability pals are, understandably, giving me guff about all the ways I come up with to avoid being held accountable! But really, for real, I’ve turned the corner into the hard offseason and should be head-down on the 1.5 draft of CODEX 17 all week.