Is the Current NFL Free Agency Model Sustainable?
On the surface, everything seems rosy: the NFL is competitive and more popular than ever before. The salary cap hasn't prevented teams like the Patriots, Colts and Eagles from consistently fielding elite teams, yet has allowed teams like the Saints, Chargers and Panthers to rise suddenly from the bottom of the league into serious, enduring contention.
In a way, the current era could be seen as a "Golden Age" for pro football.
But there's a growing problem in my mind that hasn't really been talked about yet that I think could threaten the NFL's popularity over the next 20 years: it seems like most fans just don't like most of the players any more.
Sure, we like guys like Tom Brady + Tedy Bruschi, who not only are willing to take less money to play for our team, but also look and talk like most of us, don't get into trouble (pregnant actress/model ex-girlfriends notwithstanding) and spend their money in ways we consider tasteful and respectable. These guys are easy to like -- but they're also quite rare.
The majority of talented NFL stars are, and will continue to be, poor, uneducated, and, to use the PC euphemism, more "urban" than the vast majority of fans. Sports has a long tradition of motivating talented young athletes to pursue what amounts to be a grueling and taxing career with the promise of more rapid socio-economic advancement than they are likely to enjoy elsewhere -- even before the pros, college scholarships have paved the way for many to attend college that would otherwise not have the chance.
For this reason, the NFL can continue to expect to draw a workforce of mostly poor kids looking to "make good." For the longest time, the athletes, leagues, and sporting press have all been complicit in doing what they can to allow the fans to maintain the quaint illusion that their players play for "love of the game." Going back to the "good old days" before free agency, when athletes were treated and paid like unskilled laborers is neither feasibly, not desirable, if you want the NFL to keep attracting the talented players. (Think of the sad present state of boxing.)
The problem is, the NFL's current model of free agency and the salary cap makes this impossible. Why? Because it puts the interests of the player directly at odds with those of the team and fans. In baseball, we have the luxury of complaining about the team, and wondering why the owners won't spend the money to keep beloved players. In football, we know exactly why, and thus we resent the players for wanting the money in the first place -- which is ridiculous, because it's the lure of this money that attracts so many amazing players to sports in the first place.
The tension between the fans and players is an unnatural creation of the hard salary cap. In the short term, it benefits the league and its owners: it keeps the players' salaries from growing as rapidly as they would otherwise, and virtually guarantees that the fans will side with the team in almost all issues of free agency negotiation. In a way, it's kind of genius -- why else would we care how much these guys make?
The problem is that the current generation of athletes are not shy about their mercenary ambitions. In fact, as a direct reaction to being scapegoated as "bad guys" for wanting to be paid maximum value, they've become outright strident about their desire to "get paid." This is absolutely killing the fans' ability to maintain any illusion about team sports is anything but a business. In fact, "it's a business" has practically become a mantra for the fans and players alike.
This has created an entirely more cynical relationship between fan and athlete, and though it has yet to translate into decreased interest in the sport, it's hard to imagine that it won't, given time, have some affect. For the most part, we've all either grown up in a pre-cap era, or had our love of football taught to us by parents who did. Will this present era of sports dads be able to raise their children with as pure a love of sports as the prior? Will the current generation of children be as loyal to a sport whose players are all, as most fans seem to believe, unpardonably "greedy?"
It's certainly worth wondering.
Re: Is the Current NFL Free Agency Model Sustainable?
I'm sorry, are you suggesting people still care about baseball?
I tell ya, only in Boston.
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