Before getting to a discussion on a true moment in the business of sports, I wanted to note the NFL’s stance towards vaccinations, as it has flexed its muscle over players in a strategic way. The league has announced that games not played due to outbreaks resulting from unvaccinated players will be forfeited, meaning no pay for players on the “outbreak team” as well as the competing team. It is yet another salvo from the NFL to subtly (or not so subtly) pressure players to drop any hesitancy on vaccinations.
The NFL is being strategic here and, of course (there are lawyers). They are not mandating anyone to get vaccinated. They are, rather, making life difficult, very difficult, for players who make the choice, for whatever reason, to not be vaccinated. And, as they have done so often in collective bargaining, they are using a “divide and conquer” strategy to exert their power over the labor force, even to the point of teams requiring different color wristbands for the unvaccinated, the NFL version of the Scarlet Letter around their wrists (a tactic on which the NFL Players Association says they were not consulted).
The NFL and its owners are feeling emboldened on the eve of the 2021 season, putting the “Covid season” in the rear view mirror as much as they can. And the Packers’ financial statement released last week—the only public look into NFL team finances we have—showed how, despite a downturn of local revenue due to the pandemic, an astounding $309 million of national revenue was distributed to each team. In other words, before any team turned its lights on or earned one penny of local revenue, it had $309 million to play with. To put that into perspective, the player salary cap for last year was $198 million, meaning the owners had greater than $100 million more in national distribution revenue than the required player spending limit. With a team-friendly CBA for another decade and record-setting media contracts soon to kick in, these are salad days for NFL owners and they are emboldened to do what it takes to put the Covid season behind them.
As always, these issues tend to revolve around talent and tolerance. For some players who have publicly stated their hesitancy on the vaccine or refused to discuss their status—such as DeAndre Hopkins, Kirk Cousins, Cole Beasley, Dak Prescott, Najee Harris, Josh Sweat and more—job security is not an issue. For down-the-line players, however, failure to get the vaccine will give the team an easy reason to pick other players, especially bottom-of-the-roster players on cutdown day. Lower talent = lower tolerance. Several agents have told me teams are opting against bringing in tryout players without vaccination, a real consequence to the marginal player force. The NFL is certainly not a democracy; there are different rules for marginal players, solid players and stars. Speaking of the stars...
Player Empowerment? Not So Much
It seems like every NFL offseason there is more and more talk of player empowerment, and that talk was no louder this offseason than any other, especially at the game’s most important position and the alleged “quarterback carousel” that was supposed to happen. There was breathless reporting about Deshaun Watson never playing in Houston again (before his other issues), Russell Wilson never playing in Seattle again and, of course, Aaron Rodgers never setting foot again in Green Bay (more below).
Yes, Matthew Stafford reached agreement with the Lions to get a change of scenery; he had a nice run with them and they were starting over with new coaching and management. That, however, was a relationship that had run its course, similar to the separation between J.J. Watt and the Texans. That was not really player empowerment.
Ironically, the one quarterback who “got out” was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL last season. Carson Wentz was “empowered” by his poor play and the Eagles having a viable option at quarterback—Jalen Hurts—and a willing suitor for Wentz in former mentor Frank Reich with the Colts. The Eagles are pragmatic; absent those two factors, Wentz would still be there. To their credit, Wentz and his agents achieved their plan; they got out despite the massive cap consequences to the Eagles.
Beyond that, we have seen little to no player empowerment in the NFL, and we just had our test case with my old friend Aaron.
Rodgers Returns, But What Did He Get?
Aaron, by all reports, wanted out of Green Bay, and had for some time. I am still not sure about the “wanting out” part of the reporting, but I do know he had issues there, yes. There appeared to be no one in the Packers front office for whom Aaron felt as a “point person,” someone he could shoot the breeze with about things beyond football and talk to openly and honestly. I have spoken before about the Packers’ tradition of “football guys” running the operation, with great talent in player evaluation but deficiencies in communication and people skills. Although I was clearly a minority in this thinking, I always believed the Packers should be more communicative publicly, as I have always seen them as somewhat of a public trust, but they are not. And I think that filters down to player communications.
Aaron is a person that gets set on something and it is hard to convince him otherwise. He can put people, as he phrased it to me many years ago, “on blast” and it appeared he had put the Packers front office “on blast.” It also appeared deeper than money; were it about money—adding future guarantees, bumping up his salary, etc.—it would have been resolved in a day. It seemed personal, an accumulation of disrespect—whether perceived or real was not really important —from the Packers. And face-to-face visits from the coach, general manager and the president of the team, which is the right response from the team, yielded no resolution.
When the Packers drafted Love, I said two things: 1) we had an expiration date on Aaron and the Packers (what I have always thought to be 2022); and 2) the Packers would have to manage this situation, as we did many years ago with Brett Favre in Aaron’s current role and Aaron in Love’s role, and that’s not easy. It is challenging managing a situation with no specific transfer point and competing interests on each side. And it appeared the Packers had not managed this well.
Aaron is not blameless here, but superstars like Aaron drive the product; they move the needle; they merit special treatment. The Packers seemed to be stuck in a pattern of treating everyone the same and not making special allowances for anyone, even Aaron, and that was coming home to roost. It is the world we live in; sports is a star-driven business and stars have to be treated with great care and attention. Adapt or die.
I have said for months that the Packers weren’t trading Aaron in 2021, that Aaron can’t trade himself, that he wouldn’t retire, that the Packers would make some kind of financial or other accommodation to have Aaron play this year and that he would be traded in 2022. I believe this is on track.
Deadlines spurred action (sound familiar) and after all the angst and breathless reporting of Aaron’s discontent, he is going to play this season for the Packers. There are reported “concessions” made to Aaron, with some information on them, although still awaiting the details.
In recent weeks and even as recently as Sunday, I advanced a potential resolution that both sides would hate, but often the most distasteful deals are the ones that get done. It would have had the Packers granting Aaron a void, an ability to get out of the contract—as the Patriots gave to Tom Brady a couple years back—after this season (2021). It would be distasteful to the Packers as they would get no trade compensation in 2022. It would be distasteful to Aaron because if he wanted out of Green Bay as bad as it seemed. But maybe, I posited, the mutual distaste could make it work. It was food for thought.
According to reports, there was a meeting of the minds between the Packers and Aaron in this way I advanced, with a void. But, surprisingly to me, the void is after 2022, not after 2021. Thus, the Packers would retain the ability to garner trade compensation for Aaron next year after riding his expected MVP-level play this year. To me, this seems like a win for the Packers. Their plan, in my mind, has always been to play Aaron this year and move to Love next year. My sense was that Aaron was not down with that and perhaps he even suggested to just move the calendar up a year and trade him now, which the Packers have resisted all along. But alas, the Packers will have their wish: Aaron as both MVP and placeholder for Jordan Love.
Another concession that was reported was some kind of review of the situation after this year, despite the void not being until after next year. What does that mean? Well, to me, that means Aaron will be traded and have major input into where he is traded. And according to reports the Packers, at Aaron’s request, will be bringing back Randall Cobb to the team; a step, although not a huge ask from the team.
Again, my strong sense is that the Packers plan was to move to Love in 2022, next year. And their plan is intact.
I am left scratching my head as to what Aaron accomplished here but maybe it was the reporting, not Aaron’s discontent, that was over the top. Wasn’t Aaron, according to reports, “done with Green Bay”? And now he is committed there another year, perhaps even two, for getting a void in 2023 and Randall Cobb? Really?
I guess what all of this means is what I have said all along: There is a limit to player empowerment, even for the elite of the elite, in the NFL. Aaron is a true superstar, but in a sport still tilted towards management. He is not James Harden or Anthony Davis; this is not the NBA. The superstars have some power in the NFL, but the teams have more, a lot more. Heck, it took 20 years for Tom Brady to “get out” of New England and exert some level of power. As I say often, the only true driver of player power in team sports is free agency, and NFL teams prevent that well with long-term contracts (which Aaron had) and the franchise tag. NBA superstars always hit free agency; NFL superstars virtually never do.
Maybe one day we will have true player empowerment in the NFL, where A-listers like Aaron can truly force teams’ hands in a way that did not happen here. But that day is not today. As great as players like Aaron are, the winning side of the business of football is still the team side.
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