ESPN ran two stories yesterday about Michael Crabtree and his contract situation. For those unfamiliar, Crabtree was selected tenth overall, by my own San Francisco 49ers, in last spring’s NFL Draft, but he has not, as of yet, signed with the team.
The dispute stems from the fact that the team feels that Crabtree should be paid like the second wide receiver taken in the draft (i.e. slightly less than what the first receiver selected, Darrius Heyward-Bey, got paid), which he was. Crabtree, however, feels like he should be paid like the best receiver taken in the draft, which he was.
Now, I don’t intend to dwell on this particular dispute, since Bill Simmons addressed it in his inaugural “Miller Lite Great Call of the Week,” and the only person criticizing Crabtree now is the less-than-respected Scoop Jackson.
But I think it’s interesting that someone like Crabtree can have his character and intelligence questioned for employing, essentially, his only bargaining tool. The fact that Crabtree is refusing to sign and play for the 49ers is being interpreted as a sign that his inner circle is nefarious and that he is not a “team player.”
This is a ridiculous double standard that athletes are held to. The contract rules that many athletes play under, particularly in the NFL, are incredibly unfair.
Imagine if a phenomenally successful medical student finished med school and were told that he could only work at one hospital and had to accept whatever salary the hospital elected to pay him. He could refuse the offer, but then he cannot practice medicine at all for a year. The hospital could trade him to another hospital, but the student has no say in that whatsoever, and, if he’s lucky, that hospital won’t be located in an undesirable location, or have a tyrannical boss, or just be a really crappy hospital. If he’s not traded, he gets to sit out a year and wait for the same process to unfold again, only now he’s tagged as a selfish, out-of-practice doctor who doesn’t abide by the rules. Oh, and also, the signing bonus the hospital elects to pay him may very well be the only guaranteed money he ever makes as a doctor, because if he gets injured or sick from any of the many and obvious occupational hazards he encounters, the hospital can just cut him loose and not even pay him the salary remaining on his contract.
Does that sound absurdly oppressive? Like something out of some future dystopia? Well, that is essentially the situation Crabtree and other professional football players are in.
Now that the Arena Football League has gone bankrupt, the NFL’s monopoly on professional football in America is official. If you want to play professional football in America, you have to accept the Draconian contract rules of the NFL, along with its rigid salary cap system. The NBA (unless you want to pull some Juwanna Mann—type stunt) and the MLB have similar monopolies on their sports, although the players’ unions in those sports are stronger.
The counter to this is that Crabtree is being offered $20 million to play football, and it’s not as if refusing is causing him to starve, thanks to endorsements, etc. He should count his blessings and sign the contract. But, as Curt Flood said in his landmark fight for free agency, “A well paid slave is still a slave.” It’s not simply about money; it’s about the freedom to choose where and how and for whom you earn a living. Professional athletes don’t have that.
Who knows how much money Crabtree would earn if his skills were bough and sold on the open market like almost every other American employee’s are? The only bargaining chip he has left is to simply refuse to play, but doing so turns him into a sports villain.