The decision that determined that New Orleans Saints Jimmy Graham was indeed a tight and therefore subject to the NFL salary scale for that position set off debate as to whether or not it is fair that the NFL has a salary scale that is determined by positions rather than production.
Tony Gonzalez, a now retired NFL tight end, penned a column for CBS Sports about the unfair “system” in place for players like Graham and how he himself was subjected to the same restraints when he was negotiating contracts. He did mention that he signed contracts making him the highest paid tight end in the league not once but twice in his career, but still contends that the NFL salary scale for positions is unfair because no matter how high his production was he was always considered a “lowly tight end.”
The subject of money will always be one of the biggest dividers between players and fans. Watching a player complain about the difference between a few million dollars and a few more million dollars is not something fans can easily relate to. Of course the principle involved of wanting to get paid as much as you can for what you can provide is definitely something all of us would do if given the chance, without question. With that being said, however, I find it hard to have any sympathy for Graham or Gonzalez for thinking that their contracts make them lowly anythings.
Gonzalez explained that in the NFL the salary system is set up to slot players’ salaries by position. That linebackers have a certain pay scale different than defensive ends and so on. He then went on and explained how none of the other professional sports leagues operate that way. The NBA offers the biggest contracts to the best players regardless of their positions and in baseball, with there being no salary cap at all, you know how that goes. In respect of salaries, the NFL cannot be compared with other leagues. The NBA will offer the biggest contracts to the biggest producers because there are only five guys on the court at one time, one guy getting all the points should get all the money. The NFL has the scale because the different positions contribute to the game in different ways and even the positions sometimes cannot be compared to each other.
Gonzalez and Graham both insisted that because their production was that of some “elite” wide receivers, their salary should be as high as the wide receivers’ salaries can be. When the arbitrator ruled that Graham was a tight end despite of his production, it was basically a ruling saying “We don’t care if you’re a hybrid or exceptionally good tight end, if you’re a tight end you get paid like one.” Their main factor in determining how to rule was defense, surprisingly. Because Graham is a tight end and not an elite wide receiver, even if his stats may suggest otherwise, he is defended like a tight end and therefore not entitled to claim to be the same as a wide receiver. The biggest reason is because elite wide receivers are covered by elite cornerbacks. Graham is not typically covered by cornerbacks and when he is, his production actually suffers.
It’s not discrimination to set a salary scale for positions for a sport that offers so many different positions. Using Tony Gonzalez’s logic, the tight ends that provide the best blocks would never get to be compensated highly because they’re not catching touchdown passes or earning first downs. If you’re saying that only the guys who get the best stat lines should get the biggest contracts, you’re always going to alienate the members of the team who provide things that don’t show up on a stat line but are vital to the production of either the offense or defense.
Gonzalez urges the NFLPA to address this the next time the CBA is negotiated so that “what’s right” will happen for players. But what’s right for Gonzalez is to screw other players out of money by only rewarding those with the best stat lines. That’s not likely to happen especially when Gonzalez himself admits that the system in plays works in the favor of the team as a whole.
It is said that football is the ultimate team sport. You need all the players on the field working together to achieve the goals the team needs to achieve. In that respect you need to keep a pay scale that works in favor of the teams as a whole instead of rewarding the few. That’s what’s right.