Nude World Order

Football long ago overtook baseball as “America’s Pastime.” As such, the propensity for dime-store pundits to wax metaphoric about the place of the gridiron in our symbol-driven culture increased accordingly. Football is routinely compared to war – so often that the sport’s modern era terminology has come to reflect that semi-barbaric fascination. (See: blitz, shotgun, gunner, etc.)

NFL Films would have you believe that football players resemble nothing so much as gladiators. They hyperbolize in a way that would make Don King blush, likening each preseason game to a Faustian battle for the soul of Priest Holmes and company, thrown between the devil and the deep blue 8-8 season. Others choose to limit their view to the package shown on television, and term football a “form of entertainment.”

These comparisons all skirt the truth of the issue, which is that the NFL is a ruthless business enterprise whose sole mission is to pump out dollars for the consortium of oligopolists lucky enough to run a franchise. Yes, the manufactured product is extremely entertaining; yes, the competition is part of that package, and a big part of the aura that surrounds the “game” and holds sway over the masses. But anyone that thinks the events of this offseason are more Vince Lombardi than J.P. Morgan is out of their mind.

Consider Lawyer Milloy, formerly of the New England Patriots. By all accounts, he’s the type of player a football team needs: a clubhouse presence, a leader and a consistent Pro Bowl performer. A player so important to his team that his backup – the person with the most to gain in the entire organization from Milloy’s departure – described the release as “a disaster.”

What’s that? Oh, yeah, the Patriots released Milloy last week because he refused a cut in his base salary from $4.4 million to $3.2 million on the final week before the season. Keeping football logic out of it for the moment, the fact is that this was utterly sensible from a business standpoint. Lawyer was making money that could have been spent better elsewhere. If, of course, he would agree to the pay cut. Instead, he agreed to help Buffalo kick New England’s butt this past Sunday.

He’s not the only one. Mark Brunell, one of the top six quarterbacks in the league, has all but been given his walking papers by Jacksonville, for no other reason that they’ve found a cheaper, younger replacement. If he keeps his job (which he does extremely well, mind you) for the entirety of the campaign, it will be a minor miracle. The rest of the waiver wire was a veritable All-Pro ballot: Kyle Turley to the Rams, Peerless Price to the Falcons, Ted Washington to the Patriots. Not one a game-related move.

The NFL has created a salary cap system that makes mercenary moves like the above transaction the norm. “It’s for competitive purposes,” they croon, warning that the strict cap enforcement is the only thing warding off the barbarians at the gate, the barbarians being Major League Baseball. “Do you want the Packers to fold?” they ask, claiming that this system sticks up for the little guy. Which, to some extent, it does – the league has “stabilized” in recent years into a competitive disequilibrium, where the natural ebb and flow of star players’ careers puts the stars’ teams at a disadvantage.

This method of business takes full advantage of the fact that players’ contracts are only guaranteed for two years, and essentially necessitates a downward renegotiation of salary and bonus after that span. Any time the opportunity presents itself, players are pressured and threatened through leaks to the media to re-do their deals, but all in the name of “helping the team.” If Milloy needs to be slandered in order for this to work, so be it. Helping the owners keep profits at an acceptable level is rarely brought up.

As a result, every team in the league relies on a steady stream of cheap labor to make ends meet. (Provided cost-free by your tax dollars and the NCAA, but that’s a story for another day.) And the player’s union has agreed to this system, one that hurts precisely the type of person that a union is supposed to protect – the veteran pluggers. Every industry can take care of new guys and big-shots. Gene Upshaw, meet Andrew Carnegie.

Keep in mind the ludicrousness of a system in which Bill Belichek would claim that his player had “lost a step” by offering up his statistics from the past season. . .in which he played a non-impact role that Belichek himself put him in. And does coach have such an enormous ego that he thinks he can get away with losing this guy? Has he heard the phrase “defensive genius” one too many times? If you’re eating three-quarters of his contract anyway, don’t you keep him for this season anyway? God, do I hate Belichek.

Anyway, the only reason that anyone agrees to this system is that a good portion of the players get rich off of it. At the very least, they make a good deal more than most people on the planet do for a couple of years. That being said, I find it incredibly hard to blame players for trying to get theirs while the getting is good. If you’ve got leverage, by all means use it, because management isn’t going to hesitate when you turn 29. Orlando Pace, go about your business, because Wall Street is the only metaphor that matters when it comes to the modern game.