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The NFL players’ union needs to fight for guaranteed contracts

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A lack of security contributes to many of the league’s player safety crises.

Trumka, Labor Leaders Call For Boycott Of Hyatt Hotels Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The NFL Players Association won’t be able to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement until 2021, much to the disappointment of current players who are watching athletes in other sports break the bank. Perhaps it’s unrealistic for the majority of NFL players to ever secure fully guaranteed contracts like their brethren in the NBA or MLB.

But their lack of job security could also be directly contributing to many of the player safety crises that the league currently faces.

NFL players have been sounding off on social media in the aftermath of the NBA’s recent free agency spending binge, which saw teams hand out enormous contracts to players largely thanks to an exploding salary cap. This year, the cap will increase from $70 million to $94 million, setting the stage for role players such as Memphis Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons to receive more guaranteed money than Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who recently signed the largest deal in NFL history.

The biggest reason for this disparity is simply a matter of numbers. There are nearly four times the number of NFL players than NBA players, meaning teams’ budgets are inherently going to be spread more thin. The NFL is projected to generate more than $13 billion in revenue this year, but only 47 percent of that money goes to the players. Split between the league’s 1,696 players, that comes out to roughly $3.5 million per player.

The NBA, meanwhile, shares around 50 percent of its total revenue with the players. So $6 billion in revenue divided among the NBA’s 450 players averages out to about $6.7 million per person.

NFLPA assistant executive director for external affairs George Atallah echoed this mathematical reality last week, telling ESPN it "doesn’t make sense to compare" the two leagues. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a priority for the union to gain more security for its players during the next round of collective bargaining negotiations.

It’s true that asking for fully guaranteed contracts across the board would probably be a non-starter for all 32 owners. The average NFL career only lasts 3.2 years, meaning clubs would be forced to carry an ungodly amount of dead weight on their salary caps if all players received completely guaranteed deals. NFL teams need to maintain some flexibility in order to compete.

But a compromise could be reached. There is already a lot of guaranteed money in today’s NFL, with the top 19 draft picks getting fully guaranteed four-year deals and many star players receiving large sums of guaranteed dollars. It’s time for players who reside in the middle or bottom of the depth chart to receive just as much protection as their peers at the top.

One possible solution would be for the union to fight for a league-mandated percentage of every contract to be guaranteed. Teams could exceed the floor, of course, but this system would at least grant some protection to every player who takes the field.

That’s not currently the case, where players routinely mask serious injuries and play through pain in order to avoid losing their precious roster spots. Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson opened up about the league’s painkiller epidemic in a recent interview with ESPN, talking about how readily available these substances are.

"If you were hurting, then you could get 'em, you know," Johnson said. "It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, 'My ankle hurt,' you know. 'I need, I need it. I can't, I can't play without it,' or something like that. It was simple. That's how easy it was to get 'em."

The NFL is currently battling a lawsuit filed by more than 1,500 ex-players who allege that coaches and trainers recklessly pushed powerful painkillers on them while lying about the drugs’ aftereffects. Since teams employ their own doctors, there often aren’t a lot of medical professionals available to players whose job is to advocate for them.

Though star players have the freedom to dictate their own injury recovery timelines, most players are forced to kowtow to their coaches. Universally guaranteed money of some sort would go a long way towards giving all players the security to look out for themselves.

The players’ union's failure to protect all of its members is a black mark that must be rectified when the current CBA expires in five years. It’s the only way to ensure that players aren’t continually sacrificing their long-term health for the sake of suiting up when they shouldn’t.