Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King recently wrote an interesting piece posing his thoughts on the future of the National Football League (NFL) in the context of labor negotiations. The current form of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will govern league relations until 2011. However, if a new agreement is not reached before the 2010 free-agency period, there will be no salary cap for that year. King argues that players will not be inclined to return to the cap structure under the current CBA once they have experienced life without it, and that owners would rather not play than have an agreement without a salary cap. Thus, King acknowledges the very real possibility that these two divergent positions could lead to a lockout if the owners and the players’ union are unsuccessful in negotiating an extension to the CBA that includes a salary cap.

Despite the obvious incentive for players to abolish the current salary cap (i.e., larger contracts), the NFL as we know it simply cannot exist without a limit to the amount of money teams can pay their players, as such an arrangement would cause irreparable damage to the competitive balance of the league. The league currently enjoys a level of parity foreign to Major League Baseball, in part because of the draft (which goes in the reverse order of the previous year’s standings), but largely because of the salary cap (and its interplay in the context of free agency).

It is no secret that some teams (the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins, etc.) are much wealthier than others (the New Orleans Saints, the Tennessee Titans, etc.). With no cap, any one of the league’s richest teams would have the ability to sign the top free agents each year by offering them ridiculously high-paying contracts. These teams would, in turn, be able to purchase dynasties instead of being forced to build them through superior front-office management and coaching. This doomsday scenario is not a given, of course, as one can simply look to the New York Yankees, who, despite the fact that they have the highest payroll in baseball (over 200 million dollars in 2008), have not won a World Series since 2000. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the ideological foundation of the NFL is that every team has enough talented players to win any given game, and this will crumble (or at the very least begin to erode) if wealth and greed are able to overcome preparation and strategy.

Truthfully, some players could probably care less about the competitive balance of the sport. Notwithstanding the fact that, as Herman Edwards once said, “you play to win the game,” football is a business, and the players play the game to earn a living. If they can make more money by going to another team, what is their incentive to stay? Unless a team is a perennial Super Bowl contender with a team-first mentality (e.g., the New England Patriots), the almighty dollar will certainly trump all else. As such, it is clearly in the best interest of the sport to avoid a situation where a lack of a salary cap will destroy the parity that all those involved in league operations have worked so hard to achieve. This ultimately puts the onus on the players to forgo the increased wealth in order to guarantee that fans enjoy the same product that has made the NFL the most popular sport in America.

–Mike Mahone

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