If there’s any silver lining to this whole Lamar Jackson debacle, it’s that NFL owners are finally saying the quiet part out loud and letting the world see how much they’re whining about guaranteed contracts.
The latest comes from Colts owner Jim Irsay, who answered questions about his team’s interest in Jackson with rumors swirling that the organization spent significant time in Baltimore over the weekend, precipitating Jackson’s formal trade request on Monday.
“As an owner I do not believe in fully-guaranteed contracts. I think that a percentage is one thing, but from what I’ve seen from the NBA and baseball, I don’t see it as a positive competitively.”
The NFL remains the only major sport in the world that relishes the power imbalance that comes from unguaranteed contracts. It’s also the sport with the highest propensity to player injury, the most moving pieces outside a player’s control which contribute to their success on the field, and shortest player career length.
As a result the war against guaranteed contracts is on, and Lamar Jackson is the focus of ire when it comes to team owners.
NFL contracts have always been a sham
Up to this point the concept of guaranteed contracts has always been a non-starter in the NFL. The league as a whole has been notoriously anti-worker since unionization in 1968, with seven of 10 CBA negotiations resulting in a lockout, strike, or legal intervention. As a result the concept of guaranteed contracts is routinely a discussion at meetings between the NFL and NFLPA, but the first line item crossed out.
When it comes to players the league and owners have always relished in having their cake and eating it too. Organizations have financial outs when it comes to a player getting hurt or underperforming their contract, while not having any responsibility to increase pay when a player overperforms their deal, especially when it comes to the fixed-salary contracts given to rookies. The only recourse players have is holding out, which not only means they don’t get paid — but strongly shifts public opinion against them as the player is branded “greedy” or “not helping the team” by ownership that simply doesn’t want to pay more than is on the dotted line.
As a result, NFL contracts have largely been fool’s gold since their inception. Mammoth back-loaded deals are given to make headlines, with the team knowing full well they’ll never pay the contract to maturity. This served as a masterful piece of manipulation by owners, who knew the majority of fans would never dig into NFL contract structure to see that “5 years, $120 million” was never really that amount.
Look at Khalil Mack, for instance. In 2018 the pass rusher signed a 6 year, $141 million deal which remains the richest of all time for a defensive player. In the five years since that deal was signed he’s earned $108 million — with the remaining $33M set to be paid in 2024. Mack will not see that money. The Chargers will either restructure the deal entirely so he earns a fraction of it, or they’ll release the 33-year-old pass rusher before needing to pay.
Even with the example of a modern, fairer NFL contract we have a player signed at the peak of his ability facing the realization he’ll never see 23 percent of the money he signed for.
Every other league already has fully guaranteed contracts
You will not find another league in professional sports where owners benefit the same way from unguaranteed contracts.
- NBA: Fully guaranteed
- MLB: Fully guaranteed
- NHL: Fully guaranteed
- MLS: Fully guaranteed
- Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, Serie A: Fully guaranteed
- Formula 1: Fully guaranteed
- NASCAR: Fully guaranteed
It’s a very simple transaction: The team and player agree to a contract. Both parties sign. The team pays the money.
Irsay’s argument is full of holes
Let’s be clear: The only reason NFL teams don’t want guaranteed contracts is money. Owners want to be able to continue having these big, flashy deals which are largely worthless — because it helps them maintain their power imbalance both financially, and in the court of public opinion.
When contracts are guaranteed it exposes which of the NFL owners are cheap. It forces them to put their money where their mouths are, and a lot of owners love to poor mouth — despite the numbers showing that in 2022 even the lowest-earning team made $347M from the league’s revenue split, which doesn’t include 60% of home ticket sales, on-site merchandise sales or local sponsorship agreements — which easily push the average team to make $500M or more, while spending $208M on player salaries.
Irsay mentioning the NBA and MLB is exceptionally hollow, because it both cases neither league has a hard salary cap. Competitive imbalance is innate in baseball because the rich will always get richer while small markets lag behind. The biggest leveling factor is minor league and farm system management, which is its own fresh hell from a labor/union standpoint — but at least provides some opportunity for well managed small market teams to have an influx of talent.
Meanwhile in the NBA the luxury tax represents a soft cap, which the richest teams and owners are happy to exceed — while the majority of owners see the tax threshold as its own hard cap. As it stands there are 10 teams in the NBA currently playing in the tax, with the remainder of the league choosing to be under.
Notably, Irsay failed to mention the hockey as an example — because of course he did. The NHL is a league which not only has fully-guaranteed contracts for players, but also a hard salary cap. As it stands the league has perfect parity between small and large market teams, with Carolina, Winnipeg and Nashville being extremely competitive, while Chicago, Anaheim and Montreal are struggling.
There is absolutely no evidence that fully guaranteeing NFL contracts would have a negative effect on competition. It’s a scare tactic designed to pit fans against players, rather than question why owners are able to benefit so much in these labor agreements.
Yes there are problems, but nothing that can’t be fixed with creative solutions
Fans have no reason to be worried about guaranteed contracts for any other reason than salary cap issues, and this is fair. There is a reality that football players are injured at an extraordinarily high rate, and long-term guaranteed deals could severely hurt organizations in the case of a lasting player injury.
That doesn’t mean the conversation should end here. It just means that NFL owners and the NFLPA would need to agree to find solutions which better benefit players while protecting the competitive ability of teams should a player get hurt.
Whether that means deducting a hurt player’s salary from the cap, creating a league “injury fund” that owners pay into yearly which reimburses them for a top contract, or creating a separate cap exclusively for one or two top players per team, there are absolutely ways teams could ensure they are insulated from competitive damage while still paying their players guaranteed money.
The reality is that an NFL player’s career has a limited window. One that could slam shut in an instant with a single tackle or misplanted foot. Players, especially at lower salary levels, deserve to have their money locked in for financial security — without the fear every fall that they could be forced to look for a career change a few years after earning the NFL minimum, which isn’t enough to sustain a family for a lifetime.
No other spot, no other job allows for employment contracts to be torn up without paying the agreed amount. It’s ridiculous that owners keep requiring players in the NFL to compete without security.
Don’t fall for the tricks from owners. Don’t buy into their rhetoric. Don’t be manipulated into licking their boots. These billionaires have plenty of other people they can pay to do that without you salivating on their wingtips for free.