Why the NFL Needs to End the Salary Cap

In 1919, Arnold Rothstein, known as a "man about town" in his day, induced seven members of the Chicago White Sox to throw that year's World Series.

(And they "threw" the Series, not "tanked" it — because "tank" means to intentionally lose games to obtain a perceived advantage, such as a higher draft choice, or a more favorable playoff seeding, as a 6-seed in the NBA or NHL playoffs is seen as better than a 5-seed, because a 6-seed enables a team to avoid playing the 1-seed until the conference finals).

The affair, dubbed the "Black Sox scandal" by the media, resulted in the septet, plus "Shoeless Joe" Jackson, who did not participate in the fix but knew about it and remained silent, to be declared "permanently ineligible" under baseball's iconic Rule 21.

Fast-forward to 1951, when Salvatore Sollazzo, a "reputed mobster" — the scribes always put it exactly that way until Joe Valachi made us aware of the existence of the terms "La Cosa Nostra" and its English translation, "This Thing of Ours," when he ratted out his fellow mafiosi in his testimony before the Senate in 1963 — fixed a total of 86 college basketball games.

Though 32 players were arrested, only two actually served any jail time. But Sollazzo got an 8-to-16-year prison sentence — and after being paroled in 1961, he was immediately taken into custody by immigration officials and deported to his native Italy in 1963.

Unlike in the Black Sox scandal, the bribed college basketball players were merely instructed to "shave points"; that is, not cover the point spread, which in most cases was very high and with the teams of the bribed players favored, with no stipulation that they had to cause their teams to lose the games outright.

And it is precisely to prevent the latter scenario from arising that the NFL (and the NHL) maintains a "hard" salary cap. But this has a highly undesirable side effect — on display right now in the NFL, where both Baltimore's Lamar Jackson and Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts have their respective teams over a proverbial barrel.

The Ravens and Eagles can keep Jackson and Hurts, respectively, only by incurring ruinous personnel losses elsewhere on their rosters, if the fan bases in those cities are to be able to bond with a player in such a way that only having him play his entire career, or very close to it, in that city can do.

There is a better way — and that way can be found, rather surprisingly, in what Major League Baseball does, with its luxury tax.

However, in order to make it work as intended, a luxury tax would have to be combined with a minimum team payroll requirement — or "salary floor" — which baseball does not do: in 2022, the Cleveland Guardians had a total payroll of $29.1 million. That's 12.7% of the luxury tax threshold for last season, which was $230 million.

By contrast, the NFL requires every team to spend a minimum of a four-year moving average of 89% of the salary cap. Quite different from baseball!

(In the NHL the salary cap for each team this season is $80.5 million, and the salary floor is $60.2 million, which comes out to 73% of the cap).

And since the NFL maintains corporate partnerships with both FanDuel and DraftKings, any "gamblophobia" they publicly admit to would only come across as monumentally hypocritical.

Besides, the league has many other "weapons" at their disposal to maintain "competitive balance": In addition to the draft, under the 17-game schedule, first-place teams (from the previous season's standings) now have to play five games against other first-place teams, while last-place teams get to play five games against other last-place teams.

And who says the divisional assignments for inter-division games within the same conference have to be subject to a rigid rotation? If you have the division with the best combined record in the conference play the division with the worst combined record in the conference (and therefore also have the division with the second-best combined record play the division with the third-best combined record), massive differences in strength of schedule can be effectively prevented — and sooner or later all of the divisions will play each other (remember also that each team plays two other games, against teams in the same conference that had the same division finish the season before, over and above the four games against the teams from the division they play).

Plus, there is no ironclad guarantee that if a team spends more money, they will win more games: in 1992, baseball's New York Mets spent what at the time was a major-league record amount of money on player salaries — $45 million, a figure that seems absolutely quaint today. The 1992 Mets finished 72-90 and fifth in the then-six-team National League East. They spent $38 million the following year and went 59-103 and finished last, behind even the first-year-expansion Marlins, with their headlines dominated by the saga of Mets pitcher Anthony Young and his major-league record 27-game losing streak (which he broke by blowing a save in relief, only to have the Mets score the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game played at Shea Stadium).

And how many times did Tom Brady take a pay cut to help the Patriots stay under the salary cap while he played for them? However many times he did that, it was that many more times than Alex Rodriguez ever took a pay cut during his entire career, or how many times that Aaron Judge has felt obliged to do the same thing, so far.

How do the NFL owners know that the combination of a luxury tax and a salary floor won't work? They've never tried it.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site