There are people who make better than respectable livings hymning the awesome dynamism and wonder-working righteousness and mystic justice of the free market, in books and on television and noise-machine think tanks. They're paid, mostly, by very wealthy people who already believe all those things, and have sussed out some percentage or find some pleasure in hearing them all again. There are professional economists, who are not at all the same thing, who spend their lives poking cautiously at this vast, strong beast, and who at least have the grace to admit what they don't know about it, and in some cases their fears of it and for it.
And then there are the rest of us, loving or hating the market and what it does to, with and for us, but mostly just navigating it, living in it and living with it. Our understanding of the marketplace is ruder and rougher but maybe the truest of all. We understand it the way that fish understand water, because we must. And so regardless of how much or how little we know about the fine points of the NFL free agent signing period, which began in a frenzy on Tuesday that has not abetted since, we understand the central understandable thing about it -- namely, that what looks like an example of the free market at its most vital is not at all that simple.
It looks enough like the free market at work, admittedly. There's both creation and destruction, contracts are negotiated and signed and torn up, large sums of money move between accounts, a number of people get rich. But it's not quite what it looks like, or quite what it is supposed to be, and the first furious few days of free agency have shown that it's something significantly stranger and harsher even than it had been.
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The secret that the market's pop apostles either don't know or don't let on, and which economists and the rest of us understand because we have no choice, is that there's no perfect market in an imperfect world. There are principles and paradigms and generally agreed-upon concepts, but at the bottom of all that there is context and power, and the big ideas must inhabit the context that power creates.
If there's something goofy about the shock and distaste with which some commentators address basic Moneyball principles as applied in sports, it's mostly because of how prissy and oblivious that resistance seems from a working person's vantage point. Watching sports is a great escape from the various dull pressures and familiar anti-pleasures of working life, but there's no sense in pretending that -- just because of the transcendence those sports contain and kick back to us -- they exist in some exalted and innocent realm where truth is truer and success accrues only to the most deserving players and teams. The games can and should work that way, but the games are not all there is to the business of sports.
We are, again, all of us swimming in the same stuff, and it's a fussy, silly affection to deny the way in which human resources -- those of us who are good at accounting and those of us who are good at running between the tackles -- are assessed and parsed and commodified by those cutting our paychecks. They've got their jobs to do just like we do.
And those jobs are not just scouting and negotiating and hiring and firing. There are people whose jobs those are, and they are indeed at work in this churning market doing all those things. But the harder work of creating the current context in the NFL has already been done by the militant owners who forced the league's lockout in 2011 and demanded, after record profits, a 17-percent pay cut from players -- and two extra regular season games, which amounted to unpaid and extremely strenuous televised overtime. The owners received less, in the end, but they expanded upon what was already an enviable set of advantages -- most notably, most NFL contracts are not guaranteed, leaving owners free to cut players loose at will and without any consequence worse than some cramping-of-style with regard to the salary cap.
In the deal that ended the lockout, NFL owners won an actual reduction -- after years of regular growth -- in the salary cap, from $129 million to $120 million, in 2011; since then, the cap has increased by only 2.2 percent in the last two years. This reflects some worthwhile adjustments -- top draft picks, for instance, are now paid less outrageously -- and also some simple high-handedness. This all creates a market with its own set of perversities and by-design inequities, and cements a tilted and self-perpetuating power dynamic that gives owners more and sticks players with less. But there's also the question of what it leaves the rest of us. We're seeing the answer, or the first part of it, in the first few days of free agency.
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For all the many economic ideas that find their proofs in all-things-being-equal abstraction, there is also the fact that there is no such environment -- none so equal, but also none so static or free of manipulation -- to be found on earth. The present state of play in NFL labor relations is an improvement on its feudal past -- a significant one, as the NFL first allowed free agency in 1993 -- but also reflects generations of militant ownership and what has mostly been a profoundly meek union. Owners have an inherent and significant advantage over the players, and that advantage has grown significantly.
We're used to this, and accept it in the same resigned, unconscious way that we accept all the other faintly not-acceptable things about the NFL. Whether the system guarantees parity as effectively as it guarantees profits for ownership is debatable, but we accept parity -- give or take a Buffalo Bills or Cleveland Browns, teams that spend as much money as every other team, but do it worse -- as an objective good, and so are willing to countenance some dodginess in its pursuit. We barely notice when, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars sign a jumped-up third receiver to a rich five-year deal, then cut him loose after one season -- and four concussions, the cumulative effects of which were not deemed serious enough by team doctors to earn that receiver an injury settlement -- and then endeavor to do it all again, but smarter this time. There is a cap figure to deal with, and the shame of having signed Laurent Robinson to that five-year deal in the first place, but the team doesn't owe what it didn't guarantee, and owes Robinson no settlement because a physical judged him to be utterly recovered from the four concussions he suffered over four months. On to whoever and whatever's next.
Except that, thus far in this year's free agent period, the players getting dumped are not just interchangeable incautious investments of the Laurent Robinson-ian kind. Big-ticket free agents continue to command even higher paydays than they did before the salary cap was tightened, and rookies are still paid well, on balance. This leaves a number of teams with three-quarters (or more) of their payroll tied up in a dozen (or fewer) players, and with the task of filling out the remaining 40 or so roster spots as inexpensively as possible. Cutting loose well-paid players and replacing them with cheaper models is the obvious solution, but the players getting those pink slips and taking those pay cuts are -- now more than ever --among the game's more recognizable stars. This pressure on the sport's upper middle class has created a weird glut of boldface names.
"The shifting salary landscape has created a new paradigm," Grantland's Bill Barnwell writes in a piece identifying this phenomenon, "in which an incredibly unlikely source of talent is becoming available at below-market rates: veteran free agents." These are players who might otherwise have long -- well, by NFL standards -- and lucrative careers with the teams that signed them to what were then market-rate contracts; in many cases, they're franchise icons whose performance has slipped behind the contracts they negotiated fair-and-square with their teams. Those teams cut those players loose, as is their collectively bargained right, and the players fight for less lucrative gigs, as is their lot.
Fans, and NFL GMs worth their paychecks, are already getting used to this; it is not so much new, anyway, as it is enhanced. There's nothing to do but get used to it, really. It's the marketplace, unfettered if not exactly free and merciless if not exactly meritocratic, and it's one of the few swaths of reality that regular humans share with James Harrison. But it's worth wondering whether so harsh and sharp-edged a reflection of our own world's economic contradictions and cruelties might diminish the efficacy and fun of this particular escape. The free agent churn can be fun, if exhausting, to watch, but there's a deeper exhaustion to this year's frenzy, some feeling altogether too rude and too familiar as teams disintegrate, rebuild around false new commitments -- a five-year deal, for sure -- and then do it all over again. What kind of escape is this, really: an unaccountable superclass prone to rewriting rules, a spectacularly fortunate but aggrieved and anxious caste a cut below, and beneath that a great and growing collection of others on a knife's edge over a long drop. It's not that the game is fixed; it's that it doesn't really feel like a game at all.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's "Daily Fix" blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.