The Gameface: Time to embrace free agency

Welcome to the start of NFL free agency, the wondrous time each year when a smattering of lucky players, many of whom you've barely heard of, reap the spoils of the system and get really big checks that, if converted to dollar bills, could fill a sack the size of Albert Haynesworth.

Over the next few weeks, while those happy souls are out on the town devouring lobster and sipping Dom, many of their new teammates will celebrate the signings by texting the letters "WTF" to their agents, then picking up their respective BlackBerrys, Palms and iPhones and screaming, "Show me the money!"

They'll be mad because their bosses will have committed huge dollars to outsiders who'll then make more money than the holdovers, like them, who toiled for the team and performed at a high level. They'll have signing-bonus zeroes on the brain, and they won't be able to stop their heads from spinning on an endless loop of envious frustration.

Should any of them choose to voice these feelings, it will likely be upsetting to their employers, who inherently resent having to address the financial complaints of players under contract.

And the people who'll get the angriest of all?

That would be you, sports fans.

Trust me. I know. Time after time, misspelled email after misspelled email, I get the same sentiments from frustrated readers when a player who's not on the free market tries to hit up his team for a raise:

What doesn't he understand about the meaning of a contract? If he didn't like the terms, he shouldn't have signed it.

How can a guy who makes more money in a year than I'll make in a decade possibly complain about anything? This ungrateful, greedy jerk needs to shut up.

So if the guy has a lousy season next year, will he give the team some money back? Give me a break.

I understand what y'all are saying. No one likes hearing millionaires moan about being underpaid, especially during tough economic times. And we all like to believe that a man is as good as his word – or, in this case, his signature on a legal document.

Still, the degree to which some of you find this behavior to be offensive blows my mind. As a consumer of pro football – and that would be anyone who watches games on television, thus contributing to the massive Nielsen ratings that translate into the enormous TV deals which serve as the NFL's lifeblood – you do realize that you are the one making these big salaries possible, right?

Similarly, I'm guessing most of you get the fact that every owner in this league is making money. Also, you might be aware that the average NFL career lasts about three years and that productive players at the most vulnerable positions, such as halfback, often struggle to get a second contract after their rookie deals.

Oh, and before turning pro, players spend several seasons sacrificing their bodies while facilitating a vigorous revenue stream for their head coaches and the universities who employ them, and then the best of these athletes are funneled into a system (the draft) which deprives them of the opportunity to sell their services on the free market.

Throw in the fact that the NFL is essentially a worldwide monopoly, and you now have a true sense of the broader context.

Before some of you go calling me a card-carrying Commie – which is actually funny, given the socialistic strains of revenue-sharing that drive the NFL – let's answer a question far more basic than the ones exploring the nuances of economic theory: Is the amount of money that these players make any of our business?

As far as I can tell, the only argument that salary information is of relevance to us is because of its potential impact on a team's competitive fortunes via the salary cap. Never mind that most of us have trouble making the connection between reported salaries and the way they translate to cap space; we have a basic understanding that a Redskins team which just signed Haynesworth to a nine-figure deal will, at least in theory, have less of an ability to shell out fat signing bonuses to the standouts already on its roster.

So, yeah, if Anquan Boldin or Donovan McNabb or Shawne Merriman wants his contract torn up and a new, more lucrative deal negotiated in its place, you can fret about that transaction's potential effect on the roster of the team you love. In reality, however, citing the cap as an impediment to aggressive pursuit of talent is an outdated notion.

Sure, in the '90s, teams like the 49ers and Cowboys stretched the limits of the new system to such a point that they ultimately had to purge the roster of certain high-priced players in order to comply with league rules. These days, however, the cap is relatively higher ($127 million per team for '09) and front offices have become savvier when it comes to structuring deals. As a result, very few players are released because a team simply has no other option.

Basically, when a team's general manager or coach insists the organization must part with a proven veteran because of salary-cap concerns, he's almost invariably telling what amounts to a white lie.

For example, the Colts didn't decide to release Marvin Harrison because they couldn't squeeze his $9 million salary under the cap, nor were the Bucs forced to cut several players, including perennial All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks, because the bean-counters demanded it. And the Chargers absolutely can afford to pay LaDainian Tomlinson his '09 base salary, just as the Patriots are able to devote nearly 25 percent of their '09 cap allotment to their starting quarterback and his backup.

This brings us to our next point: NFL teams "break" contracts all the time.

If you're wondering why some pro football players don't believe in the sanctity of a signed agreement, perhaps it's because in their business, the inherent presumption of loyalty in such an arrangement flows only one way.

Unlike in the NBA and Major League Baseball, most NFL salaries aren't guaranteed. When a pro basketball player such as, say, Stephon Marbury becomes an underperforming locker-room cancer, the New York Knicks remain on the hook for all nine figures of his deal, even if they decide to fire him.

Things are far different in the NFL. The second a team believes it can replace a player, or get him to play for less, it will void his contract without hesitation. Or, as in the case of Indy's Harrison, it will threaten to void the contract if the player doesn't accept a pay cut – and follow through if no agreement is reached.

Because of this reality, players typically negotiate their deals with a focus on achieving the largest possible signing bonus, which essentially serves as a substitute for guaranteed money. Yet as we've seen so many times, especially over the last several years, even a signing bonus isn't a signing bonus – it's treated by judges and arbitrators as a pro-rated advance on a long-term contract, subject to full or partial repayment by a player in the event of retirement, misbehavior or conduct perceived as detrimental to the team.

All of this enables a team executive to tell a player who wants more money while still under contract, "Sorry, dude – share that sob story with the JUGS machine because we don't want to hear it."

And you know what? I don't have a problem with that. Nor should you.

Similarly, there are some players who manage to get what they want in that situation, be it a trade (and a new contract elsewhere, Terrell Owens-style) or a raise (like Brian Urlacher extracted from the Bears last year). None of that bothers me, either, and I urge you to adopt the same attitude.

Talk all you want about principles – loyalty, integrity, getting paid millions to play a boy's game – but to me, it's all a bunch of noise. NFL teams and players haggling over money is just business, and it all comes down to leverage.

When a team feels it has the upper hand, as the Colts did with Harrison, it changes the terms of the contractual arrangement. When a player feels he can dictate to the team, he attempts to do the same.

Yeah, it's rich people against really rich people, but that's entertainment. If you're offended by the mere notion that football players make far more money during their brief careers than most of us will ever see, my advice is to get over it.

Paris Hilton gets paid a lot more than you, too. So do the Jonas Brothers and Katie Couric. Keanu Reeves could probably buy the Chargers, and the dude can't even act.

I'll leave you with a final thought: When a guy like Boldin balks at his big-money contract because he feels he's underpaid relative to his peers, does it honestly seem so crazy?

If anything, you should understand it from a competitive perspective. Take Tomlinson's situation. When asked to take a pay cut by the Chargers, he wasn't about to accept less than his 5-foot-6 backup, Darren Sproles, will make as the team's designated franchise player. LT's perspective, I'm pretty sure, was this: "If I'm going to take less, I'll go somewhere else and show you how stupid you were to underestimate me."

Similarly, the same maniacal fire that makes Boldin such a compelling player – indeed, the inner voice that causes him to exclaim "I'm a grown-ass man!" to opposing defensive backs – is what drives him batty when he learns the Cardinals are paying Larry Fitzgerald, his fellow Pro Bowl wideout, twice as much as they're paying him.

Do you really expect Boldin (or whatever player you're mad at for wanting more money) to be the kind of grateful employee who says, "You know what, the salaries of my teammates and peers are irrelevant; I'm just happy that I'm making a great living playing a game I love, and I'm not going to cause a fuss"?

He isn't that guy, and I don't want him to be. I strongly advise you to adopt a similar attitude, or at least to stop getting so worked up about the financial disputes of others.

As for Stephon Marbury's fat buyout, and the NBA title he might slop into upon joining the Celtics? Now that's a travesty.


Now that Fred Taylor is in New England, he'll end up in Hawaii – er, Miami – as a member of the AFC's Pro Bowl team next January … NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's voluntary 20-to-25 percent pay cut will be emulated by a far lesser percentage of CEOs nationwide … The United Football League, supposedly set to launch in October, will never stage a single game.


1) Jealous over a rival sports content provider's presumptuously named presentation (ESPN the Weekend), my bosses are planning the 2010 unveiling of Yahoo! Sports The Bender – live from the Sundance Casino in Winnemucca, Nev.

2) Over the next few years, there's a really good chance that NFL teams seeking new facilities will persuade voters and elected officials to provide public financing for the cause.

3) In addition to being the nation's foremost amateur oncologist, Kentucky Senator and former Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning is a tactful man who has mastered the art of the sincere and unequivocal apology. (He also has really good karma.)


Jon Gruden will almost certainly be back coaching in 2010, but in the meantime, is there any doubt the dude is going to be entertaining on TV? (Assuming he's not too sleep-deprived … ). Gruden has already shown he has an understanding of the power of self-deprecation, as evidenced by the comment he made earlier this week from the combine in Indianapolis, where he was part of the NFL Network's broadcast team. "I don't want to say it's harder to find an inside player (interior defensive lineman) than an outside player," the recently fired Bucs coach said, "but we tried to replace Warren Sapp with first-round draft choices and free agents, and now I'm sitting here with Warren Sapp on the set." Well played, Chucky. Well played.


My kids' fabulous ex-babysitter, Emily Azevedo, who teamed with Bree Schaff to finish 10th in last weekend's World Bobsled Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. Earlier this month Azevedo and Scheff took sixth in a World Cup race in Whistler, British Columbia, where I hope they'll be making a return visit a year from now for the 2010 Winter Olympics. I'd love to be there to see that, though if Azevedo follows through on a promise/threat to get me into a sled for a practice run between now and then, I make no guarantees.


A flat performance on a dreary Saturday at Madejski Stadium kept Reading just on the outskirts of automatic promotion to the Premier League, albeit with two fewer games played than each of the two teams ahead of the Royals. After suffering a 2-0 home defeat to Bristol City, with both goals coming off of free kicks, Reading remained third in the Football League Championship table with 59 points, two shy of second-place Birmingham and five shy of first-place Wolverhampton. The Royals host lowly Nottingham Forest on Saturday and then travel to Sheffield Wednesday on Tuesday. (Yes, I just wrote that last sentence. To clarify: The name of the club is Sheffield Wednesday, and the game will take place on a Tuesday. Welcome to my world. Then again, my 12-year-old daughter just scored the first header goal of her life last Saturday. When it comes to soccer, my world is currently an amazing and magical place.)


Coming off a thrilling, 81-78 overtime victory over USC at Haas Pavilion Thursday night – capped by the ol' throw-it-off-the-back-of-the-faceguarding-defender inbound play – the Golden Bears (21-7, 10-5) continue their fight for the Pac-10 title Saturday against UCLA. ESPN's College GameDay crew will be in Berkeley, for the first time ever, taping from the center of Newell Court at 8 a.m. Pacific. Then, if they really want to make like the locals, Rece, Bobby, Digger and the gang will head to Blake's or Henry's and start ordering rounds of Bloody Marys. Meanwhile, Joanne Boyle's fourth-ranked women's team (22-3, 13-1) plays at USC Friday and UCLA Sunday, with senior forward Ashley Walker, the reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week, now the proud owner of the school's all-time rebounding record (1,030 and counting).


Brandon Jacobs Harlem


Toward the end of his first season as the coach of the Vikings, Brad Childress used the term "kick-ass" to describe his offensive scheme – and critics have been sarcastically citing the comment in an effort to kick him to the curb ever since. On Friday, the Vikes completed a trade for the quarterback Coach Chilly has coveted for two years, former Texans backup Sage Rosenfels. This undoubtedly has Childress feeling as giddy as Tom Cruise's Joel Goodsen after his parents leave town in "Risky Business" – and, like Goodsen, dancing in his underwear while pretending to belt out a Bob Seger song: In this case, a send-up of "Turn the Page."

On a long and lonesome highway
North of Mankato
You have visions of Tarvaris

Missin' Berrian on a throw
You can think about Brad Johnson
Or the quarterback you had before

But your thoughts will soon be wandering
The way they always do
When you're working 16 hours
Now you've gone out for a brew
And you don't feel much like coachin'
You just wish the year was through

Say, here I am
Watchin' film again
There I am
Stuck in my cage
Here I go
Seein' stars again
There I go
Turn to Sage

Well you walk into a meeting room
Strung out from defeat
And you feel the eyes upon you
As you're strolling to your seat
You pretend it doesn't bother you
That his pass was incomplete

Most times you can't hear 'em talk
Other times you can
All the same old cliches
"So that's your kick-ass offense, man?"
And you want to kick their asses
They just don't understand

Here I am
On the phone again
There I am
Looking my age
Here I go
Seein' stars again
There I go
Turn to Sage

Out in oil country
He's a million miles away
So he throws interceptions?
He tried to make a play
As the sweat pours out of your scalp
Like your running back "All Day"

Finally you have him
Now you lie awake in bed
All the brilliance in your playbook now is
Rushin' through your head
You close your eyes and contemplate
Remembrin' what he said

Here I am
In the Twin Cities
There I am
Like Alan Page
Here I go
Playin' star, Chilly
There I go
I am Sage

Say, here I am
Kickin' ass my friend
There I am
Like Alan Page
Here I go
What up, Adrian?
There I go
There I go