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NFL Player Salaries: What They Are, and Why


NFL player salaries are excessive, aren’t they? It depends whom you ask. National Football League team owners seem to think NFL player salaries are bloated: in May they voted unanimously to terminate their labor contract with the players union early, in a move to cut salary costs. Even some NFL players themselves believe salaries, particularly for rookies, are unfair. 

So just what do NFL player salaries look like these days? According to a recent USA TODAY survey of player compensation, the top-paid player for 2008 is Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at $27.7 million, followed by Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen at $21.1 million, Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald at $17.1 million, and Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell at $16.9 million. The survey includes all signing bonuses in the initial contract year, as well as base pay and other bonuses. The story notes that teams are willing to fork over big bucks for NFL player salaries, especially for a quarterback who holds the promise of being a "marquee player."

A Closer Look at NFL Player Salaries

The earnings of top-paid players often cause people to question why athletes rake in so much dough while others who work just as hard, but outside the limelight, earn far smaller salaries. Understanding what’s behind NFL player salaries can be tricky–but not impossible. Here’s some information that may shed some light on the matter …

Jeff Ritter explains in a PayScale piece:

Do You Know What You're Worth?

NFL player salaries are regulated each season by a salary cap, a maximum amount each franchise is allowed to spend on its total roster (coaches, trainers, etc., not included). The cap exists in part to pacify team owners, who write those paychecks, and to keep NFL player salaries at least somewhat under control. Small-market — and less profitable — teams can also remain competitive with the league’s big boys, because the cap prevents them from spending their competition into submission. Thanks to an agreement between the owners and the players union, the salary cap is adjusted each season as a percentage of the previous year’s revenue.

Ritter notes the cap has increased every year since it was implemented in 1994, and so have NFL player salaries. For example, in 1999 the cap per team was $58.4 million; for 2008, it is $116 million. In 2000 the top salary paid was $8.5 million, to New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe; in 2007, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney made the most, at $30.8 million. Signing bonuses can also boost players’ earnings, Ritter explains: they “are lump payments that players receive immediately, but team bean counters are allowed to prorate [them] throughout a NFL contract.” This way, teams can legally work around the salary cap to offer players heftier paychecks.

According to a post on “Ask the Commish,” the cap resulted from the NFL’s 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NFL Players Association and NFL owners in an effort to equitably share “the pie.” Players are allowed to be free agents, meaning they can “market their skills after a specific period of service,” while the cap keeps their salaries in check.

Changes Ahead?

The NFL team owners’ decision earlier this year to end their most recent labor agreement with the players’ union in 2011 suggests changes are on the horizon. The Chicago Tribune notes league officials and owners have said for some time that the current agreement is too lopsided in favor of players. “The owners also want a change in the system to distribute the money more to veterans than to unproven rookies. Their argument is based on a disparity in salaries that leaves them spending far more on unproven rookies than on dependable veterans,” the Tribune reports.

Some veteran players, such as Washington Redskins pro-bowl tight end Chris Cooley, agree with that. In a blog-post on Yahoo Sports Cooley urges that rookie pay needs to be revamped. He quotes his teammate Todd Yoder as saying, “It’s crazy to guarantee money to people who have never played a down in the NFL. That’s the way the system has gotten. If someone has potential to become an elite player you’re gonna get more in the first contract than the average Joe Schmoe makes in his entire career.”

Matt Schneider
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