The NFL draft is great television, but it's also an anti-free market scheme | Opinion

·6 min read

The NFL draft is amazing. The draft is glorious. The draft is beautiful. The draft is un-American.

The draft, for its wonder and spectacle, is the most anti-capitalist thing the NFL does.

You will watch. I will watch. While we do, we shouldn't forget one of the biggest reasons it exists is because owners wanted to save money, and it's possible the lack of a free market system for it might have saved owners hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade or so.

Toss in the salary restrictions for rookies, and that number could be billions.

"Hard to know a cumulative number," said former Packers team executive Andrew Brandt to USA TODAY Sports, when asked how much money owners have saved with the current structure of the draft. "But real value is later years of these rookie contracts, players making peanuts while similarly situated veterans making $20 million a year and higher."

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An NFL logo and stage is shown before the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.
An NFL logo and stage is shown before the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.

In other words, a player declares for the draft. There's no bidding war the way there is with many other high-earning jobs across capitalist America. Money saved by the owners.

Then comes the actual draft. At this point, players face restrictions on their salaries because of the rookie cap.

Veterans became free agents sooner in this equation, but that doesn't come close to countering the other advantages the owners have when it comes to the draft.

"While the structure of the draft has saved the owners a considerable amount of money since its inception," said former Raiders team executive Amy Trask to USA TODAY Sports, "a seismic shift occurred when collectively bargained changes to rookie compensation were implemented."

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The 2011 collective bargaining agreement installed the restraints on how much rookies can make.

"While the changes with respect to rookie compensation have certainly resulted in substantial savings to team owners, a reduction in years to free agency is to the benefit of players (some far more than others, of course)," said Trask, "and should be factored in when assessing the overall financial impact of these collectively bargained changes. That said, the cost savings resulting from the agreed upon change in rookie salaries is of tremendous value to team owners."

We celebrate the draft (and I will, too, like a hypocrite) while forgetting, quite conveniently, that it's designed to handcuff wages. In many ways, we are celebrating players getting stiffed.

When you go for a job, you can go to the highest bidder. An engineer leaving college can go make warp drives for any company that person wants. That's the free market.

A football player should be able to do the same thing. Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, maybe the best player in this draft, should be able to hold one combine for teams. Then on draft day, every team should bid for his services.

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The first pick in last year's draft, Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, received a four-year deal worth about $34.7 million with a signing bonus of about $22.6 million. The No. 1 pick before that, the Bengals' Joe Burrow, got a four-year contract worth $37.1 million with a signing bonus of $23.9 million.

That's a great deal of money, but without the rookie salary restrictions, Lawrence and Burrow would have earned a lot more than that. Hutchinson would, too.

Sam Bradford was the first overall pick of the 2010 draft and landed a six-year deal worth $78 million with $50 million guaranteed.

Bradford was a bust, but so what? That's the price of doing business. If you don't want to draft poorly, hire better scouting departments.

The roots of using the draft as a salary depressant are deep and go back decades. We don't need to reexamine all of that history, but the important thing is the owners have long opposed the notion of the free market when it comes to the draft while they use the concept to make billions, allowing them to purchase NFL teams in the first place.

Proponents of the draft will say it helps make the league competitively balanced, allowing the worst teams to become contenders by getting the higher picks. Only problem with this is there's really no proof this actually works. If it did the Lions, Jaguars and Browns would have 17 Super Bowls each.

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"Clearly, the college draft had no immediate impact on bringing parity to the league," wrote historian Craig R. Coenen in the book "From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967". "Its most important effect was stopping the bidding wars for talent, thereby causing a general reduction in player salaries."

This remains one of the two primary functions of the draft. First, keep salaries of rookies as low as possible. Second, entertain us.

The usual response to criticism of the way the draft works is that a truly open bidding process would bankrupt the league. Sportico estimates the total value of the league's 32 teams is $112 billion. It would take a lot to bankrupt that mountain of cash.

Besides, when the top tech people graduate from college (or don't), firms bid for their services. Has Apple gone bankrupt? Has Facebook?

To be fair, the owners aren't the only ones responsible for suppressed wages. The union agreed to a problematic rookie wage scale in the previous CBA which was supposed to shift more money to veterans. Instead, the NFL has sneakily, and in some ways cruelly, created a system where in many cases teams stockpile young talent, cut older players, and drive younger ones into the ground before they can get more lucrative second contracts.

I was reminded of how humiliating the draft process actually can be for players with this quote from the late George Young, the former general manager for the Giants, who was talking about evaluating players at the Senior Bowl:

"It's a livestock show, and it's dehumanizing, but it's necessary. If we're going to pay a kid a lot of money to play football, we have a right to find out as much as we can. If we're going to buy 'em, we ought to see what we're buying."

And the goal is to "buy" them as cheap as possible with lots of help from the draft we all love.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft is great TV but also football's anti-free market scheme