Finances worsen woes, critics say
By Carl Prine
Published: Sunday, Jan. 9, 2005
When it comes to NFL injuries, players and their agents say money is the root of all evil.
They contend a salary cap that freezes players' wages triggers injuries to key players, decimating teams and roiling fans. They say players too often are asked to toil through agonizing injuries or risk getting cut. And when the injuries add up, the programs that could pay for essential medical care decades after they leave the game aren't there, they say.
"You've ended up with a sport that has the highest level of risk and the least number of protections for the player," said legendary sports agent Leigh Steinberg. "A player's injury is seen almost as a purposeful act, not as an accident which is how most other people would see an injury. Becoming injured is seen almost as an act of defiance on the part of the player. This turns reality on its head, but it's the world of the professional football player."
NFL officials and the clubs who hire them deny any suggestion that there's a financial component to high injury rates.
"The players are flat-out wrong about that," said Bill Polian, general manager of the Indianapolis Colts.
Regardless of which side is right, how finances affect player safety continues to be debated by the NFL and the union during ongoing negotiations on a contract due to expire in 2007.
At slightly more than $731,000 each, Cincinnati Bengals players boasted the highest median salaries in the NFL last season. But there isn't much variation. The typical NFL salary is about $600,000. One of the top teams of the decade, the Indianapolis Colts, boasted the lowest median wages at $454,000 per player in 2003-04.
The NFL achieved this wage stability in 1993 by negotiating a "hard" salary cap with the players union. No team was allowed to spend more than $75 million in 2003 without incurring penalties.
Player compensation is tied to NFL shared revenues. The more money the league makes, the more cash goes to its athletes: about 64 percent of league broadcast, merchandise and ticket revenues -- but not luxury box profits -- flow to labor.
A decade ago, the cap for each team stood at $34.6 million, but it will rise well above $80 million next year. That means more than $3 billion will go to pros on 32 teams, a sum fueled largely by a record $8 billion TV deal over the next six years.
Other sports leagues are different. Major League Baseball teams, for example, lock up expensive talent with long-term contracts based on what the market will bear.
"If we had gotten a baseball system of free agency, the Indianapolis Colts would have become the Montreal Expos. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have become the Devil Rays. The Pittsburgh Steelers wouldn't have been much better than the Pirates," Polian said.
But critics point to the salary cap as a cause of injuries, especially at key positions such as quarterback.
"The salary cap has resulted in ending depth on rosters," Steinberg said. "Prior to 1993, a team would have experienced, veteran players at every position. A veteran was backed up by a competent backup, and his backup was a good player, too. Today, you might have an experienced veteran at a key position, but his backup is a low-salary rookie, and there's nobody behind him if he gets injured."
That creates a snaggle-toothed roster, with highly paid vets sharing space in a formation with low-priced talent still learning the pro game. Steinberg says any given offensive line might have an A-plus center and an A-plus tackle, "but I can almost guarantee you they're standing next to a B-minus guard. That's the guy who's going to fail when the lines collide, and now your A-plus quarterback is gone, too, because he wasn't protected by that B-minus player."
In 2003, the Steelers offensive line struggled through a 6-10 season. Left tackle Wayne Gandy exited the team in the preseason, signing a $7 million deal with the New Orleans Saints.
During the season, injuries decimated the ranks of the higher-priced athletes. Jeff Hartings, who counted for about $4.2 million against the team's salary cap, suffered from ankle and knee injuries. Shifted over to replace Gandy, Marvel Smith, at $1.8 million, went down with neck and shoulder injuries.
Defenders didn't need to test All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, who at $2.4 million solidly tried to anchor the line. They had easier pickings from the ranks of relatively lower-paid pros: Guards Kendall Simmons, at $1 million and underweight because of diabetes, and Keydrick Vincent, at $379,000, plus overmatched tackle Todd Fordham, who at $690,000 suffered from a bad back, knee and ankle.
The end result: QB Tommy Maddox was sacked 41 times and tossed 17 interceptions. The normally dominant Steelers running game ground to a halt.
Steinberg, who brokered the contract for Maddox's replacement, Ben Roethlisberger, points to the pre-1993 San Francisco 49ers as a better model.
Protected by a rugged veteran O-line led by All-Pro Randy Cross and Jesse Sapolu, the perennial Super Bowl champs fielded Hall of Famer Joe Montana at QB and future Hall of Famer Steve Young as his sub. They won four Super Bowls before the NFL implemented the salary cap and only one, in 1995, after that.
Steinberg worries that the large number of career-ending injuries will hurt league marketing because teams won't be able to wrap ads around players here today, gone tomorrow.
"In Pittsburgh, what binds the fan to the game• Terry Bradshaw. 'Mean' Joe Greene. It's the ability of the player to be with a team for a long time that binds a fan to that team and to the game of professional football. A debilitating injury changes all of that," he said.
Polian agrees that the salary cap makes filling a winning roster tough. But he thinks Steinberg errs on what triggers injuries or causes losses. He believes smart and energetic front-office managers, scouts and coaches can find the right talent for the right price and navigate around most injuries with the cap in place.
"But there's very little margin for error," Polian said.
Contracts and cash
Players, however, side with Steinberg. They want to see the NFL change the way teams pay them for their services. Unlike professional baseball, hockey and basketball players, NFL athletes don't have guaranteed contracts. If a football pro is injured and can't perform at his previous level, he either gets a wage cut or a pink slip.
They say that if NFL teams had to pony up salaries even after athletes get injured, new rules and practices designed to improve player safety might be enacted.
"I don't understand how you can guarantee a contract in baseball, a less contact sport, and basketball, but not in football, a full-contact sport," said Jerry Porter, star wideout for the Oakland Raiders. "They can sign you to a deal in basketball that's solid, but for us, when they're down on you, and they want to make a move, you're supposed to make 'X' that year and you get nothing from it."
Porter has suffered serious ankle, shoulder, abdominal, pelvic and calf injuries during his career, but he played through them because he feared he'd get cut if he didn't.
Fans often read about multiyear deals, but NFL compensation packages are really a series of one-year contracts. Because of career-ending injuries, players increasingly rely on signing bonuses struck at the beginning of the contract and performance incentives after they take the field.
Signing bonuses now constitute half of a player's take-home pay, according to the National Football League Players Association. Teams prefer to prorate a signing bonus throughout a pro's contract, often "back-ending" much of the payout to soften the salary cap hit.
The combined bonuses and salaries add up to about $1.3 million per player, which is a fourth of what pro basketball players make and about half as much as baseball players. Like Porter, however, the vast majority of NFL players -- about 72 percent -- don't earn close to $1.3 million, and he's one of the best receivers in the NFL.
On the Steelers, only 15 athletes out of 53 cleared $1.3 million in 2003, and some of the best-known pros earned considerably less -- including linebacker Larry Foote ($393,000), receiver Antwaan Randle El ($536,000) and safety Chris Hope ($380,000).
The Trib analyzed salary and bonus data for 109 athletes who played for the Steelers from 1999 to 2003. For every game an injured player missed, it cost him, on average, nearly $73,000 in wage concessions the next season. When in doubt, NFL players play, even if that means risking their future health.
"You have guys who have a lot of incentives based upon playing time, you know• How many catches, maybe, how many tackles -- whatever is written into their contracts," said Barry Gardner, a sixth-year linebacker for the Cleveland Browns. "And if you don't meet that, you lose out on a lot of money. Guys understand that. They push themselves through the injuries, you know, in order to play and pretty much just to keep their jobs."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello defends the league's policy on unguaranteed contracts.
"The NFL is a competitive sports league," he said. "We put the world's best athletes on the field, so it's a competitive business by its very nature. Let's say a team gave someone a long-term contract. What's the player's incentive to compete• You must have an incentive to get out there and compete at the highest level, or you won't have the competitive excellence that we have in the NFL."
More valuable players
With or without guaranteed contracts, some players will always be more valuable than others. The Trib analyzed NFL injury data over the last four years to see what effect injuries had on winning. The Trib found that teams with the most injuries -- such as Polian's Colts -- often had the most wins, too. In fact, there's no correlation between the number of injuries on a roster and a club's ultimate gridiron success.
Instead, losing players at important positions is why teams flop. Top of the list: The quarterback. A team is 24 percent more likely to lose when its QB is out. The passer is followed closely by receivers and more distantly by offensive and defensive linemen.
Losing defensive backs, kickers, punters, running backs and fullbacks has little effect on winning, the data show.
Salaries within the league are configured accordingly, with QBs at the top, averaging $2.1 million in wages in 2003, about a third more than receivers and lineman get.
The typical tight end or running back -- also the most often injured offensive players -- won't clear $1 million.
"You've cracked the code," said the Colts' Polian. "You've discovered what most of us are not willing to admit. Injuries to certain positions are key to understanding the game. That can be a negative perception for some players, who have been taught to play through injuries, but certain injuries are more significant than others."
Polian says most teams realize this reality and pay handsomely for veteran linemen to protect the man with the golden arm. As a fallback, clubs increasingly draft low-wage rookies from colleges using similar offensive schemes and pray they'll never enter the game.
According to their union, nearly half of all NFL players exit the game because of debilitating injuries. About a quarter also suffer from from degenerative bone and joint conditions or mental illness from repeated concussions.
The union's director of benefits, Miki Yaras-Davis, terms it the "underbelly of the sport" -- an unseen line of broken older players struggling to pay their medical bills. She receives 500 new claims annually for disability payments stemming from football injuries, but there's not enough money to pay for them.
"They're truly disposable parts, which is something they've been for a long time in terms of the owners," she said. "But I think, in a sense, the fans have come to see it that way."
Nearly 100 former players receive about $30,000 each for permanent disabilities; 70 others get about $86,000 annually for more serious degenerative conditions. Nearly 600 players have received emergency medical grants totalling $2.4 million since 1990.
Five players with particularly devastating injuries get nearly $224,000 a year -- including Mike Utley. In 1991, the Detroit Lions lineman left the Silverdome on a stretcher, permanently paralyzed.
Annually, the union pays out more than $10.5 million to fund retired players' medical bills. Yaras-Davis says that while state workers' compensation laws help some injured athletes, most players never make enough over their careers to afford out-of-pocket costs for long-term conditions, and very few insurance carriers will treat gridiron ailments, which is why Hall of Famer Jim Otto spent more than $500,000 treating himself after exiting the game.
The union studied a self-insurance program for players, but it proved too expensive for pros earning minimum salaries. Nor would it help more than 1,200 retirees with disabilities.
Several hospitals throughout the United States quietly provide free medical care for former stars, including the Deborah Heart & Lung Hospital outside Philadelphia, the Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Hospital in Oklahoma City and the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, which treated deceased Hall of Famer Mike Webster.
"The player who quit with $15 million can be the guy who dies with no money. We see all of that," said Len Teeuws, a former Rams lineman and now a trustee overseeing disability payments.
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