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Sports Commentary: Does The NFL Pay For Pain?

Sep 4, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 8:02 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The NFL season begins tomorrow without some of the top players in the game. Some players are contract holdouts; one made a high-profile retirement. Commentator Mike Pesca says, many players face a question. How much money makes it worth the injuries and pain?

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: When Andrew Luck, the NFL's most accomplished quarterback under age 30, decided to become an ex-NFL quarterback 10 days ago, he explained that his frustration and pain were adding up to true despair, essentially asking us to consider his humanity. And we should. But we should weigh the humanity against the monetary because that's the calculation that NFL players have to constantly perform. Andrew Luck's contracts have paid him close to $100 million up to this point. There's no way to know how much he kept. But after taxes, expenses and agents fees, it's safe to say that Luck has tens of millions of dollars to his name.

Now, I ask you, if I put $20 million to $40 million in your bank account and told you you could earn an extra hundred million dollars over the next few years, but you'd have to break a bone a year or maybe lacerate a kidney or spleen every third year, would you do it? The money matters, of course it does, but it also incentivizes decisions in ways fans might not appreciate. The NFL is a pay-for-pain enterprise.

Let's take the case of Melvin Gordon, running back for the Los Angeles Chargers. Like Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Gordon is a great talent who refuses to play for the amount his contract calls for. You should know that their contracts call for these running backs to be paid in the mid-seven figures this year, which seems like a lot of money - and it is except when you realize that other running backs, who might not even be as good as them, are being paid in the low eight figures. All sports have rookie contracts before a period of free agency that players have to suffer through. But in football, the suffering isn't figurative.

Last year, Elliott ran or received the ball 381 times. A few of those possessions ended with him touching a foot out of bounds or, perhaps, scampering into the end zone untouched. But in the vast majority of occasions - literally hundreds of times - Elliott's labor ended as he was knocked to the ground by a 200-to-300-pound man - not fun. I'd try to get every dollar I could in exchange for that inconvenience. If someone told me, 250 times this year, I'd be tackled by a 300-pound professional athlete and that, in exchange, I would get $3 million to $5 million, I would probably take it. But if you also told me that if I refused to participate in 50 to 100 more pre-season tackles by the 300-pound man and that by doing so I might be able to get $13 million, I would be really interested in the part where I didn't have to get tackled for free.

We're not talking about practice basketball drills or batting practice. We're talking about pay for pain. Fans want their players to play. In fact, if every Chargers fan and owner of Melvin Gordon in fantasy football were allowed to contribute a dollar to a hypothetical GoFundMe, we could solve his contract holdout tomorrow. And fans generally know intellectually about the costs of the game and accept it. But knowing the costs and feeling them - really feeling them - is what makes football an entertainment to its viewers but, too often, an affliction to its practitioners.

INSKEEP: Commentator Mike Pesca is the author of "Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs In Sports History." And it looks like the Dallas Cowboys had been listening to Mike Pesca because - this just in - the team has announced it has agreed to terms with running back Ezekiel Elliott.

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