I think I speak for a majority of fans when I voice my displeasure at seeing a slew of unproven rookies holding out every year. It happens with half the first round picks, and even some of the second rounders like clockwork. Some big campus studs get star struck by what might be, get hooked up with some Arliss worshipping agent and turn a high draft pick with tons of first training camp learning potential into an early bad reputation and a villainous media circus. The easy thing to do when this happens is to harp about how irresponsible this player and his agent are being. To get bent out of shape about how one person, a person that is potentially billed as your team's savior, can affect change on an entire franchise just by being greedy. Even to get angry about how the right player with the wrong contract can end a GM's or coach's career. These are all easy, fanboy things to say. I've said them, and so have you. Let's ask the hard question.
Is a holdout really the player's fault? Most of our first instincts would be to say no, it's not the player, it's mostly the agent that got into a naive college boy's ear and started dreams of fast cars, starlets, and mansions for the whole family. Agents that prey on the fact that most NFL careers don't last much longer than a few moments past the fabled "second pay day". "What if you get hurt?", "What if you get stuck on the bench for reasons you can't control?", and "What happens if you get traded or released and you can't even get a second contract?" are all things an agent asks his rookie. Obviously the rookies are being led to predetermined conclusions, but if I was in the situation, I can't really see a conclusion different than the one the agent is leading me to. So, we can agree on the fact that a rookie holdout is a mixture of fault between a player and his agent. Maybe leaning more toward one or the other, depending on your opinion or what rookie you happen to be following personally, but it's definately a shared blame. Good. Wrong.
I present to you a third party that's to blame for what happens before every training camp, the system. I know, that's pretty conspiratorial of me. I feel a little dirty using a word like "system", but that's really the jist of it. If I was ****, and you were Bob Woodward, what I would tell you about the NFL salary structure is this.
I know full well that every sports league has it's own set of bylaws when it comes to player compensation, and I also know that the NFL is hands down the best league around. That said, I think when I comes to salary structure, the NFL could learn a thing or two from the NBA (not from the MLB. That set up is so convoluted and unfriendly to parity that it took Bob Costas to figure a way out). Let's put a cap on rookie earnings. I have no problem with letting higher draft picks get paid more than lower picks, and also no problem with there being a disparity between salaries of different round pics. We can even make these mandatory contract limits pretty high. Big signing bonus, 4-7 years, decent yearly payouts... I'm all for a man that plays such a rough, violent game cashing in because his future can be such a minefield of bad surrounding cast, injuries, and just plain bad luck. The market bears big money, so let big money be had, BUT, there needs to be maximums. Case in point: LeBron James. Arguably one of the NBA's biggest stars while he was still a junior in high school, LeBron was hyped in NBA circles more than Reggie Bush was hyped in NFL cliques. Had LeBron been drafted into a salary structure like the NFL's current system, there's a good chance that an agent would have him still a holdout looking for more money. But the NBA doesn't allow that. LeBron signed a relatively modest, short term contract with the Cavs. Not because that was all that he could get, but because that was all that he was allowed. Doubtless that NBA has a bunch of loopholes in it's rules concerning signings and contracts, but it's definately more effective at getting young players into the league early enough to be valuable to the team that invested in them than the NFL is.
How wonderful would it be if JaMarcus Russell HAD to sign to a contract that was pre-determined by the league? There would be no more choice involved other than does he get the max amount, or a little less. And if he didn't like it, then have fun in the AFL. AND... EVERY first rounder had to sign pretty much the same contract, with small changes in salary and bonus, all the way down the ladder. Then second rounders, third rounders, so on down the line. Oh, and the deadline for these signings would be three days before camp starts.
Hey, once a guy has been in the game and proven himself, and he thinks he's underpaid, I have no problem with him doing what he thinks he has to do. But these rookies need to get in the game. They need to get in camp, learn the playbooks and make themselves valuable enough to try to get the next big pay day.
Who's with me?