The business of football is in high gear, even as we are smack-dab in the middle of the season. So much is happening, starting with someone I’ve known for a long time.
Rodgers’s word play
Readers of this space know my favorable bias toward Aaron Rodgers, both as a player and a person. Beyond his obvious gifts and abilities at quarterback—I still would take him over every player in the league—I have always appreciated his intelligence and thoughtful way of speaking, so different than so many athletes using the usual cliché, something I first saw when meeting him the day after we drafted him in 2005. I know many are turned off by his “California cool” and wry sense of humor, but it is something that certainly served Aaron well when the team went through a messy “divorce” with Brett Favre in ’08.
Even with my pro-Aaron bias, I cannot defend his comments last week; although some of the criticism, I believe, has been over the top.
Aaron’s “immunization” answer regarding his vaccination status was intentionally misleading; I cannot defend that. I get it: He had seen the criticisms rain down on players such as Kirk Cousins and Carson Wentz for not being vaccinated and, knowing he took an alternate treatment that he believed gave him immunity, he intentionally chose to use that term. But it was wrong and it was deceitful. He knew what he was being asked.
Aaron spoke forcefully and with great conviction last week about his reasons for not being vaccinated, including an allergy to one of the ingredients in the mRNA vaccines and a fear of sterility as he plans to start a family. I have read that there is a greater risk of sterility with contracting the coronavirus than having the vaccine, but if that is what Aaron’s medical team is telling him, so be it. Had Aaron said what he said last week back in August, there would have still been criticism, but it would have been muted compared to what came Friday. If he had asked for advice on this—he has not—I would have suggested owning the fact he was unvaccinated earlier, sharing the reasons for it and showing the courage of his convictions.
I also cannot defend Aaron for ignoring the protocols of wearing a mask in press conferences in the team media room. Aaron rationalized that by saying he was regularly tested, and the media was masked and vaccinated. But, alas, protocols are protocols; they are not optional (unless they are, more below). I am a professor at Villanova’s law school, and I have to teach in a mask to students wearing masks even though we are all vaccinated. It’s uncomfortable, my mask keeps falling down, my students can’t hear me, I can’t hear them, I can’t see their reactions and facial expressions; suffice it to say, it stinks. But it is where we are, and we do it.
It appears that the NFL, the Packers and the NFLPA all knew he was blowing off that protocol, yet we have not heard about any sanctions. As to Green Bay’s allowing this, my sense is it had a choice of 1) upsetting its superstar and forcing him to mask up, or 2) appeasing him while noting other violations around the league, and accepting whatever comes in the form of penalties. It appears it chose the latter. As I say frequently, greater talent equals greater tolerance.
Beyond these criticisms, I thought some of the criticism was over-the-top piling on of Aaron. I get it, we live in a world where people pick sides, a world of tribes and teams, a world where politics ignites division and a world where the mention of names like Joe Rogan fans the flames. But in the end, Aaron has a right to his opinions and a right to protect his body. I am a fitness nut myself and fastidious about what goes into my body, although, for me, that included the vaccine. For him, it doesn’t. We all wanted an explanation from Aaron; we got one, one we didn’t like, but one nonetheless. Would we have been more “satisfied” had Aaron never addressed it?
In this day and age of everything “leaking,” it is amazing no one let out that Aaron, one of the biggest stars of the sport, was unvaccinated. His teammates knew he was unvaccinated. His coaches knew he was unvaccinated. His front office knew he was unvaccinated. And now he won’t be tested for 90 days and, after missing a game, he’ll likely be back Sunday. And as for the football side, it was a true perfect storm for the Packers. With a commanding lead in the NFC North, Green Bay got a look at its future, Jordan Love, without a serious injury to Aaron against a nonconference opponent.
As to when that future with Love will be, I have been steadfast that it will start in March. Before the revelation about Aaron last week, my Twitter timeline was full of fans wanting the succession to Love put off at least a year. When Aaron made those comments, that changed; many wanted the torch to be passed to Love sooner rather than later. And then when Love did not look good, the sentiment changed back to keeping Aaron around. Fans are a fickle bunch.
Aaron was wrong to mislead people and wrong to flout protocols, but like everything in the NFL, this too shall pass; he’ll return to lead the Packers to a serious playoff run and we’ll be on to other inevitable dramas.
The $128 million man
The report that the two-year compensation level for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was an eye-popping $128 million—$64 million a year—brought predictable hyperbole. Count me as not surprised. Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a number that would surprise me.
In negotiating two buckets of contracts alone (labor and media) Goodell has ensured that his constituency, NFL owners, make tens of millions of dollars of annual profit, perhaps more, for the decade ahead. It is hardly surprising that each of the 32 teams would contribute $2 million a year toward compensation for leadership that keeps them rolling in profits for the foreseeable future.
Regarding labor, Goodell inherited the last player-friendly collective bargaining agreement (CBA), one negotiated by outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in 2006. Goodell then led an ownership group that aggressively forged an economic reset in favor of ownership, negotiating CBAs in ’11 and ’20 that have accelerated ownership profits and franchise values. To give some perspective, the player salary cap will likely be in the $200 to $250 million range for the next five years, while the NFL distribution to each owner—an amount based on national revenues to the league—was $309 million last year.
With labor peace (and a 17th regular-season game) secured, Goodell then led the owners in negotiating new broadcast deals with old (NBC, ESPN, Fox, CBS) and new (Amazon) media partners that will net owners $110 billion over the next 12 years. And there is still more broadcast revenue to come, with the DirectTV deal expiring soon. That $3.1 billion per owner, from media revenue alone, will easily outpace player pay and operating costs into the future.
Goodell is serving ownership well, not only financially but also in taking the bullets so they don’t have to, as he did with the Washington Football Team last week. He is the unwavering corporate face of the most successful sports league in history, one whose broadcast popularity dwarfs any other type of programming, sports or otherwise. Against that backdrop, $64 million a year for Goodell does not surprise me.
Deadline dud, as usual
The NFL trade deadline came and went as it does every year: a lot of smoke, very little fire.
As I have written here before, football is schematic: Players do not “plug and play” as seamlessly as they do in baseball and basketball. And since NFL contracts are largely not guaranteed—unlike those in the NBA and MLB—teams don’t need to dump bad contracts on other teams; they can just release the player without future financial obligations.
One trade did catch my eye. The Broncos traded the most recognizable face of their franchise, Von Miller, to the Rams for second- and third-round picks in the 2022 draft. Let’s examine both teams’ strategies here.
The Rams, who recently traded two first-round picks for Matthew Stafford, continue to operate in an “all in, win now” mode, scoffing at dead money (they have two of the three largest charges in history: Jared Goff and Brandin Cooks) and at draft picks (they have only two low-round picks in next year’s draft). The lack of draft picks, in my opinion, will haunt them in coming years, as they represent their future depth and infrastructure of the team, also balancing the cap with fixed and reasonable rookie contracts. I understand, they are “going for it,” and fans always love that strategy, but fans don’t have to clean up the mess if they don’t “get it.”
As for Denver, it is paying $9 million of Miller’s remaining $9.7 million for those draft picks (picks that give it more ammunition if it were to pursue a certain now-polarizing quarterback on the COVID-19 list). As football Moneyball trades go, the Broncos got good value: In 2018, the Browns took on Brock Osweiler’s $16 million contract albatross while netting only a second-round pick. Denver was on the different end of a similar transaction this summer, acquiring starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for a low-round pick after the Panthers paid him $7 million. The Broncos’ front office has quietly made a couple of high-value trades this year.
As for the major nontrade at the deadline, I was a broken record here: No team was going to trade for Deshaun Watson, no matter how desperate. Thus, Watson will continue his clandestine deal with the Texans to shut up, stay out of the way and collect his paycheck for the rest of the year. That is what we are left to surmise here as neither the Texans nor the NFL have provided any clarity.
NFL teams now cannot trade until mid-March 2022 when I believe, unlike now, there will be some franchise-defining trades.
Tragedy in Las Vegas
Henry Ruggs III is certainly not a sympathetic character, having driven under the influence at 156 miles per hour on the streets of Las Vegas and crashed into a car where the driver (and her dog) were killed. And he will not be playing football, let along living outside of a jail cell, for a long, long time. Even with all of that, I do feel a tinge of empathy for him.
Ruggs was immediately fired from the Raiders, with millions of guaranteed money likely tied up in grievances. While he faces felony criminal charges, Ruggs will not have the comfort and community of a team around him, an atmosphere to which he has been tethered since he was a kid. He was cut within hours of the crash, set to face the consequences of his actions alone and without the built-in support of friends and teammates. Sure, some will be there for him like Derek Carr—a player who has shown truly impressive leadership this year—but most will move on without him.
Many have asked whether teams have resources to help prevent such outcomes as this. In Green Bay, we did give out key chains with numbers to call if players found themselves in that kind of position, but the service was sparsely used. I was told by player leaders that players did not trust that use of that service would not get back to us in the front office with knowledge that players were out late, drinking, etc. Although that was not the case, it was hard to get players to understand that.
The Ruggs story is tragic, and he will face severe consequences for his actions. But I do feel for him a bit as he faces a bleak near future without the support of his (former) team.
Name over game
Finally, Odell Beckham Jr.’s play—despite that incredible catch for the Giants years ago (in a game they lost) has not matched his celebrity. Most were aghast that New York could “only” get a first-round pick and a starting safety in trading Beckham to the Browns a couple of years ago. Now the Browns could not muster a trade for Beckham, choosing to release him instead in a deal where they potentially save $4 million. No matter how high-maintenance he is, if he was a good player, he would not be on the waiver wire. Believe me, Beckham is more popular with fantasy football general managers than real-life NFL general managers.
More NFL Coverage:
• MMQB: Lamar Jackson Is Proving He Can Come From Behind
• Jordan Love’s Starting Debut Was a Lose-Lose Day for the Packers
• Week 9 Takeaways: The Real Browns Stand Up
• The Problem Is Aaron Rodgers Thinks He Has All the Answers