There’s nothing like waking up Sunday morning after a long week of school and work to unwind and cheer on our favorite NFL teams, all in pursuit of a Super Bowl or a fantasy football championship. However, we, the viewers, do not see the costs these athletes endure every week, especially concerning running backs. The NFL and team owners have failed running backs in all aspects, from labeling them as frail to even suppressing their bargaining power come contract time. When a star running back’s rookie contract has expired, the trend for teams is to negotiate a long-term contract that is well below the salary they could get in an open free-agency market.
Running backs have no bargaining power, as they can’t even test the free agency market, since teams are able to exert a monopoly power of the franchise tag over them. In case you aren’t familiar with the franchise tag, owners have a power that allows them to “tag” a player whose contract is expiring and force them to either come back on a one-year deal or not play for any team at all. The salary of the tagged player is 120% of their salary from last year or 120% of the top five players at that position, whichever is higher. While this tag seems like a running back gold mine, it is not. Players, especially in the running back position, are more concerned with their long-term financial standing than what they make in a single season.
There is a fundamental problem with how the NFL and its players interact. Just last July, representatives from the NFLPA met with running backs Nick Chubb, Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry, among others, to discuss the depleted running back market for players at their position. Most of the players’ frustration boils down to being franchised tagged, hence having less leverage to negotiate a fair deal. Because of this, NFLPA President JC Tretter alluded that running backs should sit out as injured if they are not given a fair deal, and in response, the NFL filed a grievance against the association condemning this. Technically speaking, the NFL is in the right in this situation. Using an injury as leverage is against the league’s collective bargaining agreement, however, should certainly be a wake-up call to the entire NFL. There is clearly a disconnect between the team owners and players, and the league needs to remedy this. Players either sitting out or faking an injury hurts everyone involved, even fans.
Around the same time the news broke of the NFL filing a grievance against the players association, millions of eyeballs saw Chubb’s season end in an injury so gruesome that ESPN refused to show it on air. Chubb’s injury, at that moment, exemplified the need for a change in how running backs deals are constructed. The Browns running back is 28 years old, and with one year left on his deal, we more than likely saw his last play as a Cleveland Brown. Even if he signs a new deal as a free agent, it will be nowhere near his last one. There’s no denying it: Injuries are a part of football, and at all levels, you assume risk. The risks that running backs assume are greater than any other position, as they take the greatest punishment, hence why their primes are so short.
The longevity of the average running back is another reason why the franchise tag hurts the player. If a running back plays well during their rookie deal, instead of earning a long-term payday, like Joe Burrow’s monster five-year $275 million deal, a team will just tag the player for a season or negotiate a long-term deal in bad faith. If he suffers an injury or regresses due to the hard nature of the position, he’ll be cut from the team and need to look for additional NFL opportunities. This is not in the interests of the players, let alone fair to the same players who are risking their long-term health generating millions of dollars to the team owners and league. I’m not saying that running backs deserve to command $40 million-plus salaries like some NFL quarterbacks, but don’t they deserve to hit the open market and at least test their true value? After all, is there any other position in football that does as much as them? Running backs have to run the ball, catch the ball and even run block. Some of these running backs are required to do some of the most dangerous plays in football; for example, in a short-yard situation where there are eight defenders over 300 pounds stacking the box, ready to pummel the running back, and almost always the running back gets flattened by multiple defenders.
This situation becomes all the more delicate because this is an immediate problem without any immediate solution, as the CBA is good until 2030. Why would the team owners or the league want to eliminate the franchise tag? The league and its team owners are benefiting from this system, and the league has yet to take action on running backs raising concerns about their long-term financial state due to the violent nature of their position.
This is the same league that claims to care for its players, yet has a history of undermining ithem, such as in 2013 when it was revealed the league concealed what they knew about the dangers of concussions and football. Then, in 2020, according to court documents from a separate lawsuit, former players being evaluated for neurocognitive impairment were assumed to have started with worse cognitive function if they were black. So, if a black player and a white player received the exact same scores on a battery of thinking and memory tests, the Black player would appear to have suffered less impairment. And, therefore, he would be less likely to qualify for a payout from that 2013 lawsuit. While this suit was dismissed, both parties remedied the situation and eventually ended the usage of race-norming.Nevertheless, the NFL has a history of underminig its players, with the league’s current targets being running backs.