It Doesn't Add Up
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to play football.
As football season kicks off this month, I’ve really missed the tales that former Saints color commentater “Hokie” Gajan would share.
A native Southeastern Louisianian, Hokie played at Baker High School and LSU before being drafted by New Orleans in 1981. He played for five years until injuries to both knees forced the running back to move to the staff as a talent scout. By the time he got to the radio booth, Hokie knew the franchise in and out. His downhome accent and cadence accentuated his knowledge, and fans loved to hear the stories he spun.
But Gajan’s body revealed truths that his mouth couldn’t. His hands and fingers were bent and crooked; his knuckles bulging, knobby and arthritic. And his poor knees. Hokie was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare cancer, in fall 2015. He passed the following spring.
I remembered Hokie and his hands this summer, when news broke of NFL and NBA free agent contract signings. The numbers were jarring — not just the size — but who was being shown the money.
In June, Derek Carr became the highest-paid player in the NFL, with an average salary at $25 million per year, when he signed a five-year, $125 million contract extension with the Oakland Raiders. Not too shabby, but still $17.5 million less than the NBA’s highest- paid player, James Harden, who in July signed a four-year, $170 million deal worth $42.5 million annually.
Within days of Harden’s deal, New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday inked a $126 million deal that will pay him $25.2 million a year. Sporttrac.com, an online sports team and player contract resource, reports Holiday will be the second highest-paid Pelican behind Anthony Davis, who averages $25.43 million a year.
For comparison, quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints highest-paid player, will make $24.25 million this season.
I love football. I watch on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and sometimes Thursdays. The New Orleans Saints are, easily, my favorite team, and my respect for the NFL is immense. But I feel there is trouble on the horizon.
With $14 billion in annual revenue, the NFL is the richest sports league in the world. The NBA earned $8 billion in revenue in the same period. But more than 20 NBA players will have average yearly contracts worth more than $25 million when the season tips off this fall and not all of them are among the association’s elite players. Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, for example, is entering the second year of a five-year $152.6 million deal ($30.52 million a year/average) and has never been an NBA All-Star.
The NBA is benefiting from the influx of its nine-year, $24 billion national television deal with ESPN and Turner Sports. The deal, which started last season, is worth three times the previous TV agreement and pushed the salary cap up 34 percent, according to NBC Sports.
While players in both the NFL and NBA receive about half of the revenue under the terms of their respective collective bargaining agreements, basketball teams have 15 players compared to 53 on a football team plus any dead salary cap money for players who were cut. Even though the NBA makes less than half of the NFL, a smaller pool means more money for the limited few. The larger player pool in the NFL means less money on average individually.
The NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement was reached in 2011 and runs through the 2020 season. Unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball, NFL contracts are not guaranteed. Changing that will be very contentious. There are already whispers that it will take a player strike and possibly losing a season for owners to consider making the change.
But expect players to demand more come 2021. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he wants to make the NFL a $25 billion league within the next decade. A year without income is a lot to ask of the nearly 2,000 players and their families, but the league is also asking a hell of a lot of its players. These players will, and should, demand and deserve more for the abuse they endure, as well as taking on potential threats to their future health and well-being. It doesn’t make sense to risk so much for less pay, especially when many leave football with bodies and, more recently, minds as gnarly as Hokie’s hands.
Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.