Whose Risk Is It Anyway?

The careers of most NFL players last only marginally longer than those of the gladiators in ancient Rome. Their injury risk is substantial, their post-career quality of life is diminished.
05/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I don't smoke, but I've always enjoyed a good Cuban. By which I mean an unfiltered observation from Mark Cuban, the blunt owner of the Dallas Mavericks. But recently he posted a blog entry about the economics of the National Football League that was puzzling enough to qualify as a Rubik's Cuban.

Cuban wrote: "While individual NFL players take on significant risk, the players as a whole take on ZERO risk. If their membership just shows up for games, 53 guys on each team are getting paid. They never have to give the money back or contribute capital to make up losses."

As much as I respect Cuban for his passion and innovation-- he built the Mavericks into one of the NBA's great franchises -- I think his comments are off-base and wildly inappropriate.

I'm not a football agent. I have no stake in this fight. But anyone who insists that NFL players don't take on risk should have his head examined. The players do, routinely. Remember the Congressional hearings on concussions in the NFL? Remember the scientific data that showed pro players are more likely to suffer from dementia than the rest of us? Remember the Real Sports interview of John Mackey, the great Baltimore Colts tight end? Well, Mackey barely does.
Zero risk? Consider this:

* A 2003 UNC study found that players who suffered multiple concussions were three times more likely to suffer clinical depression than the population as a whole.

* A follow-up study showed that NFL players suffering concussions had five times the rate of cognitive impairment and that retired players were almost 40 percent more likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease than the population as a whole.

* A 2009 Michigan study showed that more than six percent of former NFL players over the age of 50 reported receiving a diagnosis of dementia, five times higher than the national average.

Cuban also wrote: "The hardest job in professional sports is the assessment of player skill. The second hardest job is determining how to allocate salary to players in a manner that builds a championship team. The difficulty of talent assessment and salary is amplified for rookies."

Earth to Cuban: Say what? The NFL has the optimal system for assessing players - NCAA college football, effectively a minor league in which, at no cost to the pros, prospects are developed and evaluated for three years before they're even eligible for the draft.

The careers of most NFL players last only marginally longer than those of the gladiators in ancient Rome. Their injury risk is substantial, their post-career quality of life is diminished, their lifespan is measurably shorter. At least 38 former Pittsburgh Steelers players have died since 2000, with 17 of them 59 or younger. Even if we suppose Cuban really meant to say NFL players take on ZERO "fiscal" risk, they -- not the owners -- are the ones imperiling their lives "on the whole." To paraphrase what John Nance Garner, our 32nd vice president, once said about the office: next to a player's long-term health, an owner's profit margin isn't worth a bucket of warm spit.

Still, the average compensation of an NFL player is significantly less than their NBA and MLB counterparts. Pro football players don't have guaranteed contracts - indeed, their deals are often restructured by their teams, and veterans are often released once their skills show the slightest sign of deterioration. Think of the exiled LaDainian Tomlinson or my favorite ex-Philadelphia Eagle, Brian Westbrook.

Sure, NFL players receive signing bonuses. But with the exception of quarterbacks, a handful of impact players and top-10 draft picks, those bonuses are seldom stratospheric. For every Manning, Brady, and Brees, hundreds of players leave the league with little more than aches, pains and the grim prospect of having to find a new career.

Meanwhile, despite the shaky economy, television revenue shows no sign of falling, and the NFL -- unlike MLB and the NBA -- continues to strong-arm networks into paying bigger rights fees. Not long ago the NFL created more TV slots to get NBC back in the game and expand the league's revenue base.

Still, Cuban argues that the major broadcast networks, "are now pushing TV Providers (cable, telco and satellite), to pay retransmission fees. In other words, the broadcast networks want to be paid for every TV Provider subscriber, just like the cable networks."

At the same time, he notes, the Federal Communications Commission may reallocate wireless spectrum assigned to broadcast TV, thereby shifting the airwaves to mobile broadband. "All NFL regular and post-season games are currently broadcast on over-the-air stations,"

Cuban wrote. "If the business and delivery of those stations changes substantially, the economics of the NFL could change substantially."
Well, sort of. The reality is that the retransmission fees will allow networks to pay the NFL even greater sums.

In Cuban's view, the NFL has a crummy economic system and its players are improperly valued and compensated. In my view, the NFL is the world's most profitable pro league and, not surprisingly, has the labor agreement that most favors management. During their ongoing negotiations with the NFL players union, the owners have refused to release financial figures.

Hmmm... I wonder why.