Lionel Messi’s deal with Inter Miami includes an ownership stake he’s expected to exercise after he’s done playing for the club.
Mario Lemieux was an owner-player in the NHL from 2000 to 2005.
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Pro baseball players owned their teams during the nineteenth century.
Could Caleb Williams become the NFL’s first active player of the modern era to own part of his team?
Unpacking that answer highlights the unique features of the NFL—an association of independently owned, competing businesses that collectively try to evade antitrust and labor law violations.
Last week, an unsubstantiated rumor surfaced claiming USC’s star quarterback—widely expected to go first overall in the 2024 NFL Draft—wants an equity stake in whichever team drafts him.
There are several reasons why a player-owner isn’t possible in today’s NFL.
First, a player’s compensation is limited to the value of his employment contract, and that contract is governed by the collectively bargained “NFL Player Contract.”
This standard contract, which appears as Appendix A in the collective bargaining agreement, “sets forth all components of the player’s remuneration for playing professional football.” Other agreements involving “consideration of any kind” are prohibited. A team providing a player with equity, either in the present or as a pledge for some time in the future, would be invalid, according to the CBA.
Second, the CBA contains limitations on compensation as part of the salary cap and rookie wage scale.
A team can’t circumvent the salary cap or wage scale with side deals, as was the case with the New Orleans Saints’ “Bounty” controversy and off-the-book bonuses. The NFL rookie wage scale slots salaries based on when a player is drafted. Article 14 of the CBA unambiguously states that attempts to circumvent those rules through “promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent, or understandings of any kind” are forbidden.
Third, NFL owners recently adopted a rule barring non-family employees—including players, executives and staff—from acquiring equity in a team. As Sportico recently explained in regard to opposition to Tom Brady paying a lower price for equity in the Las Vegas Raiders, the more restrictive the league and its teams become in blocking persons from owning a team, the more vulnerable they become to antitrust lawsuits.
Still, the NFL’s approach to excluding active players from the ranks of owners isn’t uncommon or unreasonable.
Magic Johnson was required to sell his 4.5% ownership share of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996 when he unretired to play (he later bought the stake back from Jerry Buss). The NBA’s CBA prohibits owner-players, which is one reason why Michael Jordan, who practiced with the Charlotte Bobcats while owning them, couldn’t suit up in games.
There are plenty of reasons why NFL owners and players remain separate. A player-owner might not be tradeable unless the player agrees to sell his stake, the price for which could be discounted given the urgent need to facilitate a trade. The salary cap would need to be reworked, too, to account for compensation outside of base pay and bonuses. Some teams might not be able to offer equity—there needs to be a willing seller—which could disadvantage them.
Then there are legal considerations. The NFLPA is the exclusive bargaining agent for NFL players, negotiating with the league over wages, hours and other working conditions. Their agreement is captured in a CBA, the terms for which are exempt from antitrust scrutiny because they are borne through arms-length collective bargaining. An owner-player could disrupt that relationship since he would be both labor and management. While one player-owner might be easily excluded from labor negotiations and accompanying votes, multiple player-owners could present logistical challenges.
The Lemieux example might suggest owner-players are possible in the NFL. After all, the NFL is similar to the NHL in that each team is separately owned and each operates as part of a joint venture (MLS, while not quite a single entity in a legal sense, is operationally different from the NFL and NHL and features investor-operators buying into the league itself).
But the Lemieux example is distinguishable in ways that make it ill-suited for NFL comparison. It involved something unfathomable in the money-making NFL: a team going bankrupt.
Lemieux, one of the greatest hockey players of all-time, retired at the age of 31 in 1997, the same year he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. A year later the financially distressed Pittsburgh Penguins filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Lemieux, who was owed $32 million in deferred compensation, was the team’s largest creditor.
Through bankruptcy negotiations, Lemieux was paid $20 million plus gained equity in the team. In 2000, owner Lemieux decided to return to the ice and would go on to play for five seasons. In 2021, Lemieux reportedly made about $350 million when Fenway Sports Group bought the Penguins.
The idea of an NFL team, which on average is worth $5.16 billion and which plays in a league that shares soaring revenues, going bankrupt is far-fetched. So too is an NFL owner wanting to play, let alone being capable of playing, in the NFL. As of 2022, the average age for the 31 primary NFL owners (excluding Green Bay) was 72 years old—or about 46 years older than the average age of NFL players—and none played in the NFL.
So don’t expect to see NFL versions of the Penguins or Lemieux, and don’t expect to see an owner-player.