September 21, 2003

Salary Caps and World Domination

Posted by shonk at 01:40 AM in Sports | TrackBack

Okay, I don't think anybody that reads this is much of a football fan, but lack of interest has never stopped me from ranting before. When you live in Philadelphia, you tend to become pretty hyper-aware of how the local sports teams are doing, especially the Eagles and especially when they're playing poorly. Not having watched either of their games this year, I have really no idea what is wrong with the Eagles, but I suspect part of the problem is that they're playing too many young, inexperienced players, especially in the secondary and on special teams.

The problem of young players is an age-old one in sports, as younger players tend to be faster, more athletic, more explosive, but also tend to be less mature, less experienced. The problem with a lack of maturity and experience is that it tends to lead to mental mistakes that can be costly: not recognizing a pattern, not knowing how to fight off the block, losing one's temper in a close game, not knowing when to conserve one's energy and when to give total effort. The tradeoff involved with having younger players filling important roles on a team is why most sports teams try to achieve a balance between youthful athleticism and veteran wiliness and leadership.

In the NFL (and most other sports leagues), this tradeoff is about more than just achieving that ideal balance with no constraints. After all, teams have the Collective Bargaining Agreement to deal with. The CBA is the agreement between the NFL Player's Association (union) and the league (owners). Within that agreement, everything from expansion to team size to meal allowances are spelled out in detail. Not least of the components in the agreement are the minimum salaries and the Salary Cap (what's linked to is the old CBA; I don't know if the new one is online or not, but I imagine it's similar. The language of the CBA itself is pretty intimidating; I recommend this Salary Cap FAQ). Now, those two components, acting in opposition, do much to determine a team's mixture of youth and experience.

Why is that? Because of this is the minimum salary structure for players on a team's active roster for the 1999 league year (again, the 2003 structure is similar, though there is an additional level for 10+ year veterans):

Length of Service

Less than One Credited Season $175,000

One Credited Season 250,000

Two Credited Seasons 325,000

Three Credited Seasons 350,000

Four Credited Seasons 375,000

Five or more Credited Seasons 400,000

What this chart makes pretty clear is that employing a rookie for punt coverage and backup secondary duties (a position likely to earn near the minimum) is significantly less expensive for a team than employing a five year veteran for the same job, which is important when one considers that each team's spending on salaries is capped. In fact, when you consider the fact that any player with at least four "Credited Seasons" is eligible for the NFL pension plan, a five year veteran is substantially more expensive to employ than a rookie. Now, I've highlighted some of the deficiencies of younger players, but it almost goes without saying that, when contracts are being negotiated, a general manager is going to have a hard time justifying the notion that a five-year veteran is almost three times better than an otherwise comparable rookie. After all, you can't quantify experience in the same way that you can speed or agility. The general manager might regret his decision after the season when the team comes up short in the playoffs due to the rookie inadvertantly touching a live punt (subsequently recovered by the opposition for the go-ahead touchdown mid-way through the fourth quarter), a common rookie mistake.

So what's my point? My point is that the way the minimum salary as structured in the CBA is detrimental to teams (and, incidentally, to marginal players: is it any coincidence that the length of the average NFL career is 3 1/2 years?). Teams have a strong financial incentive to employ rookies over veterans, yet it is the inexperience of rookies that time and again is decried by teams and sportwriters for a team's failure. Young players are likely to only have a couple of years in the league, not because they don't have the ability, but rather because they are forced by their own union to demand a higher salary than they are worth (if we suppose that a competent though unexceptional defensive back is worth $300,000, then such a player will become obsolete after only two years, even if his play does not decline).

This is typical of established unions, which tend to favor policies that do one thing: ensure the continued profitability of the union. In the case of the NFLPA, this means adopting policies that serve the above-average veteran player. Such players tend to be team leaders, so their support of the union is crucial. The young and marginal players being screwed by the CBA are unlikely to be influential voices in the locker room and, at any rate, are never around long enough (due in part to the minimums enforced by the CBA) to have any effect on the popularity of the union.

So, the moral of the story is, the next time your team loses because some no-name rookie got called for holding on a punt return, you might want to consider taking a moment out of the time you devote to questioning his parentage to toss in a curse or two for the self-serving NFLPA.

None of this is to say that owners and general managers are devoid of blame personnel decisions, but they get blamed all the time. The NFLPA deserves a few fingers pointed its way, too.

I think I'll hire some of the former NFLers screwed by the CBA to be my bodyguards when I achieve world domination; they're likely to be large, strong and have bad attitudes. Needless to say, I'll be sure to follow these handy tips along the way.