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Albert Haynesworth seemed to represent everything sports free agency was about. After starring at the University of Tennessee, the fierce defensive lineman was picked in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft by the local Tennessee Titans. After seven productive seasons, which included All-Pro honors in 2007 and 2008, he had earned the right, at age 28, to cash in big.
The free-spending Washington Redskins obliged, inking Haynesworth to a seven-year, $100 million contract before the 2009 season, a deal that included a $21 million bonus for 2010. But that 2010 season, his second in Washington, is when Haynesworth's problems really began. He skipped minicamp, clashed with coach Mike Shanahan, who dogged him for being out of shape, and ultimately played in just eight games (starting none), registering just 2.5 quarterback sacks before a suspension in early December ended his season altogether.
Disappointment for Redskins fans, and a classic management misstep for the team: dead money. It's been a problem in sports for the better part of three decades, since the free agency era led to players winning bigger slices of the financial pie. While few would argue with players pocketing their fair share – after all, they are the show – sports free agency has never been about pure pay for performance. Service time counts as much as talent, skewing higher pay toward veterans. An older player often winds up with a lengthy contract that runs past his prime. General managers operate under enormous pressure to show fans they're willing to spend for a winner. It adds up to many teams taking risks that lead to big money is exchange for not so great play or, worse, little play at all.
The Redskins got hit with $24 million (salary and bonus) in dead money with Haynesworth in 2010, more than any player for any team in sports. Not far behind Haynesworth: Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd ($18.3 million; 10 games), Dallas Mavericks forward Peja Stojakovic ($15 million; under 19 minutes a game for 33 games) and Seattle Mariners outfielder Milton Bradley ($13 million; 28 games before being released in May).
We compiled our dead money list by looking for high-salary players ($3 million and up) who logged minimal playing time in the just-completed (or about to be completed) 2010-11 NFL, NBA and NHL seasons, and the first third of the current 2011 Major League Baseball season. One caveat: we generally cut slack for injured players, concentrating on those whose performance led their coaches to play them sparingly. But perpetually hurt players are fair game: at some point a player needs to show he can stay on the field. Hence we included Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner, who hasn't had 400 at bats in a season since 2007. Hafner has played in just 32 of 59 games this year while making $13 million.
No league doles out more dead money than the NBA, a salary cap-driven enterprise that leads to teams offering contracts based more on available cap space than on any true rational analysis of a player's worth. Of the $332 million we found in dead money across the four leagues in 2010-11 (the total from adding up those $3 million and up contracts for players spending the bulk of their time on the bench), $127 million, or 38 percent, comes from the NBA. Unlike, say, Major League Baseball, where GMs often make payroll by sprinkling several low-paid young players on the roster alongside expensive stars, NBA rosters are littered with expensive part timers. Redd and Stojakovic may be understandable – both are onetime stars who have simply slowed down in recent years.
But how to explain $7.3 million for the Nets' Dan Gadzuric, who's averaged 15 minutes a game during a nine-year career? There are many like him around the league who didn't quite make the overall top 10, including Charlotte's Joel Przybilla (about 18 minutes and two points a game the last two seasons for $7.4 million per) and the Lakers' Luke Walton (zero starts, nine minutes a game over the past two years; $5.3 million). No wonder David Stern is adamant about changing the system.
The top five:
1. Albert Haynesworth, Washington Redskins
2. Michael Redd, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Peja Stojakovic, Dallas Mavericks
4. Milton Bradley, Seattle Mariners
5. Travis Hafner, Cleveland Indians
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