It was a nice tidy operation the NFL had going for it. A television payoff of around $5 million for each club, each season, made it practically impossible for any team to lose money. There was no freedom of movement for the players; the five-year contract signed by the league and the Players Association in February 1977 saw to that. There would be none of the club-jumping that turned the NBA into something of a nomad league, none of the million-dollar auctions that turned baseball into a sport for high rollers.
And NFL salaries were low. Not low compared to what a night watchman or army sergeant might take home, but certainly less than the pay of basketball and baseball players. "We've kept our pay scale within the bounds of sanity," was the way the NFL people put it.
But a month and a half ago a chill wind blew down from Canada and changed all that. NFL owners aren't going to go broke, but the league's salary structure has been elevated a notch or two. Eric Harris did that. A 6'3", 200-pound cornerback who spent the last three years playing for the Toronto Argonauts, Harris signed a $1.04 million contract with Kansas City in April. Harris' deal led to a rash of quick signings and million-dollar contracts for top-level NFL draft picks. It also created much bitterness and backbiting among the Lords of Football, and now many NFL owners have a feeling that perhaps the party's over.
Going into the 1977 draft, Harris, who played at Memphis State, was regarded as one of the two best defensive backs and one of the top 14 players on the board. But before he could be chosen he signed a three-year contract with Toronto and became a "someday maybe" prospect for the NFL. Kansas City then took him on the fourth round. After completing his CFL obligations last season, Harris decided to return to the U.S. and take advantage of the one provision in the NFL Players Association contract that allows an athlete to sell himself to the highest bidder. After two or more years in Canada, the contract stipulates, a player can come home and auction his services; however, the club that drafted him gets to sign him if it matches the highest offer. New Orleans came up with a big-bucks deal for Harris, Kansas City matched it and Harris became a Chief. But the price was stiff, and when the figures got out, a minor panic gripped the NFL.
Harris' four-year package is worth $1,040,000, with $700,000 of it a deferred bonus to be paid from 1985 to 1995, plus a $150,000 low-interest loan. His salary over the next four seasons will be $90,000, $100,000, $120,000 and $130,000. Best of all, the whole thing is guaranteed; the $1.04 million will be paid out even if Harris suffers disabling injury in his first game for the Chiefs. In baseball and basketball, guaranteed contracts are common; in the high-risk world of the NFL, there are very few such arrangements.
When news of Harris' contract surfaced, NFL clubs quickly moved to sign picks from the April 29-30 draft before they, too, went north for a few enriching years. New England gave its first choice. Cornerback Roland James, a six-year contract worth $1,015,000 ($200,000 bonus deferred until 1986, with a salary that progresses from $75,000 to $225,000), not bad numbers considering that James was the 14th player picked in the draft and the second cornerback. (The highest-paid cornerback in the NFL last season reportedly was San Diego's Willie Buchanon at $175,000.)
A couple of days later the Jets signed Lam Jones, the Texas flanker and the second player drafted. Mike Trope, Jones' agent, divulged some self-serving figures—he apparently wanted to advertise Jones' six-year deal as the first $2 million rookie package in NFL history—but his numbers may be high. Jones' salary begins at $100,000 and ends at $205,000. There was a $250,000 signing bonus, plus a $200,000 loan, and there's a $300,000 deferred bonus, payable in 1983. Total package: $1.4 million.
Trope purportedly told the Jets he wanted Jones' contract to look like a $2 million deal, and that's where the funny money came in. The deferred bonus is projected as $900,000 payable over 30 years, starting in 1986, but there is a proviso: in 1983 the Jets can buy out that bonus at $300,000, a procedure they most assuredly will follow. The $900,000 figure is strictly cosmetic.
When news of Jones' contract terms leaked out, other clubs were furious at Jim Kensil, the Jets' president. "What I want to know is, What's the damn rush?" one general manager said. "Why this big panic to sign a guy a couple of days after the draft—and at those kind of numbers? He's just killing the whole league, that's what he's doing."
"What really hurts is that $100,000 starting-salary base," an official of another club said. "That kills you with your veteran players. They can understand a big bonus—O.K., that's the times—but when a 10-year veteran lines up next to a rookie who's making the same base pay, the vet is going to be furious. In the old days [as recently as last year] you'd go high on the bonus but keep the base pay fairly low. But all that's changed."
"I couldn't care less what other people think," says Kensil. "I didn't get hired to win a popularity contest."
Seattle fell into line right behind the Jets, signing its top choice, Texas A&M Defensive End Jacob Green, to a six-year contract worth a reported $1,085,000. Los Angeles signed its No. 1, Defensive Back Johnnie Johnson out of Texas, to a six-year deal worth $1,115,000, with a starting salary of $100,000. The rush was on, and it was propelled by fear—each team's fear that its top pick would take off for a couple of years in Canada and then come back for the auction.
"They're decent people up there in Canada, and they're not going to like the idea of being used," says Giants General Manager George Young. "Besides, only two clubs up there get involved in all this, Montreal and Toronto. And I think they're going to get tired of the idea of players just putting in time so they can come back here."
That's one view. There's another. "The idea of a two-year rental is a clear threat, and we're all aware of it," says Jim Finks, the Bears' general manager.
"I've heard people say, 'Well, the CFL only takes one big-name player a year,' " says Colt executive Ernie Accorsi, "but what if it's yours? It's like sitting on a hand grenade."
Late in May the grenade went off. Green Bay's No. 1 selection, Bruce Clark, a defensive tackle from Penn State and the fourth player picked, was signed by Toronto. Kaboom! One reason for Clark's defection: he didn't want to play middle guard in Green Bay's three-man line. His contract is for one year and there is an option year. His signing bonus was $58,000 and his salary is $150,000 this year and $165,000 the next—a $373,000 package. The sweetener is a $250,000 loan that is repayable if Clark returns to the States, but that becomes a bonus—which he won't have to pay back—if he decides to stay in Canada. That special kicker should set the tone for future Canadian contracts.
Meanwhile, the signings have trickled in. A few of the numbers were eye-catching. Oklahoma's Billy Sims, the No. 1 pick in the draft, got a bundle from the Detroit Lions rumored at (rumor must suffice because there is a "confidentiality clause" in the contract) $1,740,000 for three years and an option season—$1 million bonus payable over 10 years, three seasons at $180,000 per and $200,000 for the option season. Heisman winner Charles White of USC got a six-year, $1,160,000 contract from the Cleveland Browns, not bad for the 27th pick in the draft.
The NFL's management star was New Orleans Assistant General Manager Harold Guiver, who had all 10 of his draft choices in the fold by May 23 and held the line at $520,000 for four years in signing his No. 1, Tackle Stan Brock from Colorado.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the IRS takes a long look at low-interest loans designed to beat the taxes. The IRS can be sticky on "loans in consideration of an employment contract." There could be a Dies Irae coming, a day of wrath for those who set up artificial devices to deprive Uncle of his just rewards. That will be something for the players to concern themselves about someday. Right now, management has its own worries.