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Home   /   Anywhere but here: players that fight the power dynamics of the NFL

Originally published in Overtime’s March 2011 magazine, available here.

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This year it is quarterback Deshaun Watson (originally published before subsequent legal issues). A year ago, it was Jamal Adams. The year before, Antonio Brown. A year further back, Le’Veon Bell. 

All high-profile NFL players who made headlines with their intention not to play for the team where they became stars or had success. Money, politics, or losing, among others: for various reasons these players were all willing to force their way off teams. But it is a path fraught with risk for them, and the successes are rare.

Mike Carlson, the voice of the NFL in the UK for many years, told me that some of the reasons for this are intrinsically linked to the nature of American football: “It’s the ultimate team sport. Whereas baseball, although it is a team sport, is also a sport of individuals. It’s pitcher against batter.

“Basketball is a star-driven sport because you’ve only got five guys on the court, so if one of them is a huge superstar he can have a major impact.

“[Soccer] is more like basketball in the sense that your individuality can shine much more easily. In [the NFL] you have to be put into a system that helps you work, and you have to have the cooperation of your teammates, and everything has to click properly.

“[American] football is certainly the most complicated sport there is. And requires the highest degree of coordination between the different players on the team, and it’s probably, I’m willing to listen to arguments, but it’s probably the most physically demanding sport there is.”

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The combination of highly specialised players and the frequency of injury mean that, while only 11 players on either side are on the field at one time, NFL active rosters during the season contain 53 players per team. This in turn impacts on the security of NFL contracts compared with other sports, where they tend to be fully guaranteed. 

Carlson said: “[American] Football is the only one of the major American sports where you can cut [release from their contract] a guy.” This often happens before the un-guaranteed latter years of a contract arrive, so the player never sees that money. 

He added: “The Players’ Association [union] has sort of accepted that, because of the big rosters, because of the more complicated situation, and because of the very high injury risk, that the teams need some flexibility.”

The fundamental team-nature of the sport, along with the level of control the teams possess, leads to what Carlson refers to as a “culture of obedience in football” where to stand out for anything other than exceptional play is generally not seen as a positive.

However, NFL careers can be short – the league average is between two and four years – which means the pressure to win and to earn quickly is high. And there is money to be made, especially for stars like those mentioned earlier. 

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott currently represents both the risk and the earning power of the NFL, as he became the highest paid player in history this off-season with a four-year $160million extension, that will pay him $75million next season, despite still recovering from a potentially career-ending broken and dislocated ankle. 

Some players are not willing to settle for a situation, but their options are limited if they want out. Carlson explained: “It’s very difficult to go out and play badly deliberately. Too dangerous for one thing. But the second thing is, you hurt your value on the market if you start playing badly. So, you can’t really do that, but if you make a stink about your contract then you become a ‘distraction’, which is the NFL’s word for this kind of thing. And they hate distractions.”

Talent will open a lot of doors, even for volatile players. “If you become a ‘distraction’ it becomes in the team’s interest to probably get rid of you. And the team that takes you will almost always assume, like with Antonio Brown, that you won’t be a distraction with them. Especially if they give you what you want. And that’s often true. In the case of Antonio Brown, it’s not, because Antonio Brown’s a headcase,” Carlson said. 

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Brown was regularly an All-Pro wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers before he forced his way out two years ago. In the time since he was cut by two different teams, played a single game, had numerous legal issues and served an eight-game suspension before eventually winning a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.

Not all players are so lucky. “Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed for four years, or five years now, because he’s quote unquote ‘a distraction’”, said Carlson, referring to the former-San Francisco 49ers quarterback who first took a knee to protest police brutality and has not worked in the league since he left the team in 2017. 

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Carlson cites ego as a big factor in relation to contracts, but for future success he said: “The most important thing obviously is, to go to a team where the situation is right for you. Where your skills are going to fit into what they want to do. And you would think that a team wouldn’t be chasing you if they didn’t [fit] but that’s not the case.”

Le’Veon Bell refused to play in Pittsburgh without a long-term contract that met his valuation and eventually left at the same time as Brown. But he ended up signing for the New York Jets. The Jets were such a bad team that their star safety Jamal Adams was busy at the time engineering his eventual exit to the Seattle Seahawks a year ago. Bell did not fit and is yet to return to his previous All-Pro level, despite moving onto the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Ultimately, in a league that prizes the collective and where the system is geared in favour of the team, to stand out as an individual makes a player vulnerable, especially considering the reputation it brings. 

Carlson summed up the situation: “When you become a distraction, it becomes worthwhile to get rid of you, even if [the team] have to take a loss. The players are aware of that dynamic, and sometimes can use it in their own favour. But what they’re less aware of is that when they move on, they’re moving into a similar dynamic, which won’t necessarily be in their favour. 

“They have to realise that it works both ways.”

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