One might not realize it when buried in the comments of some Yahoo post about Chris Kluwe and gay marriage, but the average sports fan has gotten a lot smarter. Consider: 2001's big baseball movie was "Summer Catch." 2011's was "Moneyball." Progress! Another way these smarts manifest themselves: Fans chastise players less than ever before for jumping teams in search of big money. When Jose Reyes left the Mets after the 2011 season, for instance, fans blamed New York's broke, hapless ownership and Jeffrey Loria's blood money, rather than the player. When Jeremy Lin headed for Houston after a magical 2012 with the Knicks, fans did not curse his greed. Instead they waved goodbye and wished good luck, stunned but tolerant.
No fan in possession of much of a brain can blame a player for hunting down a raise. (The counterargument comes too easily: Wouldn't you do the same thing? Of course we would.) But there are moments, like after the long-awaited trade on Sunday that sent Darrelle Revis to the Buccaneers for a 2013 first-rounder and a conditional pick in 2014, when the thinking fan doesn't know whether to applaud or sigh.
Revis did well for himself on Sunday. Sort of. Let's first go back to 2010: Revis's four-year extension with the Jets -- hammered out after the "Hard Knocks" holdout -- would pay him an average of $11.5 million per year, not a fortune, but enough to buy a cute starter house in the suburbs and a Cadillac or several hundred. The Jets, too, were contractually prohibited from franchising Revis at the deal's end. For their part, the Jets got a couple perks: Revis could not hold out during the life of the deal (otherwise three cheap, mandatory years would magically tack on to the contract), and he would make only $9 million in 2013, his walk year. But the walk-year discount was really a blessing for both sides. If the Jets wanted to trade Revis, they could hawk him with a gift of a cap hit. The best corner in the league! Making less than Laurent Robinson! But if the Jets wanted to extend Revis, they would likely do it before the 2013 season, so as not to chance free agency, and they would rip up that last year. Getting back to the present: Because the Jets are the Jets, Revis tore his ACL at precisely the wrong time, got in a public spat with the owner and the team had to trade him. On Sunday, Revis's agents wrung a big, strange deal out of Tampa. He gets six years and $96 million-which makes him the NFL's second-highest-paid defensive player after the Bills' Mario Williams -- but none of the money is guaranteed.
What do fans think of this? I skimmed the comments on Revis's Instagram feed, where he showed a photo of himself on a private plane to Tampa. (All apologies to the good folks at the Gallup poll, but this is how great public-opinion research gets done.) Jets types, it seems, are largely upset, but understanding. "Damn bro love you to death, gonna truly miss you, but I understand it's the business," read one characteristic reply. "Damn this is the most depressing pic I've seen on Instagram but I don't blame you that money is crazy!" read another. And so on.
The thinking fan -- the one who sympathizes with the players in every labor-management struggle -- is first inclined to stand with those commenters and with Revis. The laborer wrung one hell of a deal out of a bad situation. He overcame a crummy owner, and got paid.
But is it that simple? Revis's contract is great for Revis. But it does nothing for NFL players who aren't Darrelle Revis, and it does nothing for the NFLPA's ongoing broader losing fight against management.
We don't think about this struggle except during lockout times, so let's go back to the last one, in the summer of 2011. NFL owners -- who were then, as they are now, as they will be in five years, as they were five years prior, making oodles of money on essentially risk-free investments -- said, what the hell, let's lock out the players. (Roger Goodell even justified it by claiming it'd make tickets cheaper, as though not a single fan of the nation's most popular game had paid a moment's attention in freshman Econ.) Owners insisted on cutting the players' share of league revenues, and on a framework which would strip away many of the bargaining rights of incoming rookies. And they got all that in the new CBA. What did the players get? More benefits for retired players -- so many of whom have battered brains and bodies because of their time in the league -- and eligibility going forward for lifetime health insurance. And no 18-game schedule. Forget Gene Upshaw's leash; what kind of incriminating photos does the Ginger Hammer have of DeMaurice Smith?
It is flummoxing and disappointing that the NFL -- the best business of all the leagues, with $9.5 billion of total revenue in 2012 -- gets away with a hard salary cap. (Major League Baseball has no cap at all, and the NBA has a flexible luxury-tax system. The NHL has a hard cap only because its overextended business might have collapsed without one.) Tom Brady -- who just got a raise and a new signing bonus -- makes $33 million over the next two years. In another sport, one with a better players' union, someone Brady's age just made $33 million over the last two years of his employment. It was A.J. Burnett.
It is even more galling that the most violent of all leagues gets away with non-guaranteed contracts, deals that leave undereducated overspenders without much, in the case of injury or atrophied skills. Sports Illustrated reported in 2009 that 78 percent of NFL players are bankrupt or under heavy financial stress within two years of retirement.) NFL players compete for slices of a fixed pie, and sometimes the pie slides off their fork before they can eat it. Stars in other sports get to bake their own messy cobblers and dive in face-first.
Revis's wholly unguaranteed deal makes the best of a bad system. But it also showcases just how bad that system is. How much can a little victory possibly mean when the game was rigged long ago?