If somebody offered you $1 million dollars to play one season in the National Football League (NFL), would you do it? Undoubtedly, the majority of readers with any interest in football would jump at the opportunity with unbridled enthusiasm.
It is the NFL, after all—who wouldn’t take a chance to have the glory of playing on Sundays in front of a nation of rabid fans? In fact, if we had a million bucks lying around in the bank, I’m betting many of us would give it all up for a chance to suit up for our favorite teams.
Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, however, saw things differently this year, staging an extensive holdout from his team to protest a contract that was slated to pay him slightly over $1 million this season. A word of caution before you rush off into an indictment of today’s coddled and spoiled athletes, and lament that nobody plays for ‘the love of the game’ anymore—Chris Johnson is not you or me. He is one of the best players in the NFL, and blessed with freakish athleticism that enables him to do things on the playing field that we can only dream about.
Despite natural talent, he worked hard to get where he is today; this is not a character judgment of Johnson, who I neither like nor dislike, but simply a fact. Nobody makes it to the upper echelons of a sport (especially one as brutal as football) without making myriad sacrifices along the way.
While he may have a massive advantage in athletic skill, Johnson has a limited window of time to maximize his gains from this skill. This is where the perspectives of the average person and people like Johnson, Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora and many other NFL holdouts diverge.
We are inclined to think that climbing the ladder to financial success is a gradual, step-by-step process, with promotions and pay raises coming incrementally over the course of a career. In the real world, very few professionals can even imagine sitting out of work for a mere day to demand a higher salary.
Yet applying this reasoning to holdouts is a mistake that people commonly make. Instead of looking at the multitude of differences between the two situations, they make direct comparisons. I often hear people casually dismiss holdouts by saying, “They’re getting paid to play a game” or lamenting that normal people can’t hold out of their jobs.
Do they have a point at some level? Yes. It is strange that a teacher who educates our youth will take decades or even an entire career to make as much as a moderately successful big-time athlete. But, at the same time, professional sports are simply not a model of real life, something which we can’t blame on the athletes themselves.
Can we really fault players for taking advantage of their skills? Despite mainstream opinion, life is somewhat tenuous for NFL players who aren’t stars. Unlike leagues such as the NBA and MLB, NFL players can be cut at any time, and their salaries are not guaranteed. If they start to underperform, they face the consequences. In the pressure-packed world of football, these are tough challenges. If a player manages to scale to the top of the pyramid, he might get one or two chances to negotiate a contract for lifetime financial security. Take Johnson, for example; his new contract gives him $30 million in guaranteed money, enough to keep his family financially secure for life if the money is handled sensibly.
He might not have gotten such a historic contract, however, if he had not demanded one now, coming off three seasons as perhaps the most dynamic playmaker in the game. Running backs have notoriously short careers, even by NFL standards, and are at continuous risk of injury due to the pounding they take each and every time they get the ball. Even if they manage to avoid a major injury, backs inevitably wear down sooner than other players.
Remember the name Larry Johnson? In the mid-2000s, he was one of the league’s most prolific backs for a span of three years with the Kansas City Chiefs, and now at the age of 31 is all but irrelevant, toiling as a backup for the Washington Redskins. The game is littered with such players, who burst out and ran well for a couple years but couldn’t sustain their production for many reasons, including health and the quality of their teammates.
Should Chris Johnson have taken the risk of getting hurt this season before signing a big contract? Those who respond that he must honor his contract need to take a closer look at the business of football. If Johnson had not held out and subsequently gotten hurt this season, chances are negligible that the Titans would think about paying him based on past contributions to the team. In an environment where players are nearly always replaceable to some extent, we must understand the need to strike while one’s stock is high. I don’t mean this as an endorsement of holdouts in general—sometimes players do get too greedy and lose focus on the ultimate goal of team success. Just like the general population, NFL players have some among them who look out for nobody but themselves, and cause all holdouts to be perceived as selfish. But there is a distinction between fair and selfish; while any player that wants a new contract is clearly asking for personal gain, it may sometimes be that he wants market value for his skills before they erode or are taken away by external forces.
Johnson may have overstepped his bounds, holding out well into this year’s training camp, but we should stop to think before labeling him as another spoiled athlete that signifies everything wrong with professional sports. Remember, basic economics are at play in football just as in the real world, and many of us would do the same thing as these players, whether we want to admit it or not.