The Hard Math of the Cinderella Story

Football is a numbers game. One grass field, 120 by 53 1/3 yards. Six points for a touchdown, three for a field goal. Four chances to make 10 yards.

During the eighth month of the year, the numbers that really matter are 2,880 men vying for 1,696 roster spots in training camp. That is what makes the sport so great: the competition. It is as much a battle of will and determination as it is of strength and speed. And ultimately, every single man has a fair shot to achieve his dream of running out of that tunnel on a Sunday afternoon.

At least that’s what we hear. By and large, this notion is a lie.

Here’s what is true. In 2014, of the 1,696 roster spots filled for Week 1 of the regular season, 1,403 of the players had previously been on an active roster or injured reserve. Another 199 were picked in that year’s draft. The odds for making an NFL team if you are not a rookie draft pick or an NFL veteran are dismal.

For every James Harrison or Jeff Saturday, there are hundreds of nameless would-be players who are cut every September. I am not talking about the former NFL players who finally had to call it quits. I’m talking about the players who were not drafted and have never donned an NFL jersey in the regular season. Most of them don’t have a chance.

That is not to say that the situation is hopeless for all of them. After all, 63 undrafted free agent rookies made the 53-man active roster for Week 1 of 2014. And even the unfortunate ones who were not so lucky at least earned a paycheck for the offseason, right?

Well …

Whether or not rookie players are paid for offseason activities is a decision made by each individual NFL club. Many teams do not pay them, citing room and board as sufficient compensation. Sound familiar?

Did I mention a fair number of those undrafted players do not have their college degrees? Many of those who do have degrees have them in less than rigorous disciplines.

All players are paid for training camp, as they should be. After risking their well-being for five grueling weeks — during which the injury rate is the highest of the entire year — the rookies can look forward to roughly $5,000. For the entire camp!

Feel free to pull out your calculator. Do the math. “That’s a fair amount of money!” you might say. Five thousand dollars may be more than you make in a month. But are you in a profession in which you may find yourself knocked unconscious? I can tell you firsthand that is not a place you want to be. Yes, $5,000 is a good sum of money, but it comes at great personal risk. For the unlucky majority of undrafted rookies who don’t find themselves on a 53-man roster for Week 1, what do they do? There are no more paychecks and no more healthcare for the nagging injuries every single one of them certainly has sustained.

Some find work in the NFL’s practice squad system. These players earn a minimum of $6,000 per week, but that’s only for the weeks they are on the squad. These jobs are highly volatile with little to no job security.

The majority of them find an odd job to make a little bit of money, while they train and await a phone call from an NFL club (many of my college teammates worked construction during this time). After all, injuries happen. But for most, that phone call never comes.

Then what?

Many are signed to a futures contract by a club, inviting them to train with the team in the offseason and assuring them of a spot on the 90-man roster at the start of training camp. It is better this time, though. They are paid for offseason activities, totaling roughly $7,000 for seven weeks of work.

But wait …

There is a new draft, with new talent. Younger guys with more upside and potential. NFL clubs love potential. For the players on these futures contracts who are not cut following this influx of new competitors and actually make it to camp, how many make the team? In 2014, only 31 players who had never previously succeeded in making an active roster found themselves on the 53-man roster for Week 1. Yes, 31. Of that 31, only four were without work the previous fall, with 22 on a practice squad and five in the Canadian Football League. What positions were those four? Kicker, punter, punter, and long snapper.

What can we say for these players who have once again fallen short of making the highly coveted 53-man roster? They have spent two years chasing their dream, and in the process they have made memories that will last a lifetime. But what else have they done?

For starters, they have risked their health, ended up without health insurance, squandered two years they could have spent staring their real career, and made less than $30,000 in the process. Did I mention a fair number of them do not have their college degrees?

I realize I have painted a rather grim picture. You may be beginning to feel for these poor souls, preparing to ostracize the evil and ruthless owners of the NFL.

Not so fast.

Consider this: Do these players deserve more money?

From an economic point of view, their pay should be based off of two things: the scarcity of acceptable prospective employees and the number of such job listings in the market.

I have news for you. There are thousands of prospective players who want to play in the NFL and are more than good enough to play in preseason and give a half-decent look in practice. All of them are willing to do it for the given amount of money or less. And of course, there is only one National Football League. Neither the supply nor demand is working in the favor of the players. And, as a business, why should an NFL club pay such players more than they are worth?

Here is where the age-old debate between economic deservedness and social good comes in. I’m talking about medicare, farming subsidies, athletic effects of Title IX, etc.

I have always been a proponent of economic considerations over social good, but when I see the situations I have described happening to my teammates and friends, I cannot help but think about this often, asking myself how I feel about it.

Here’s the $30,000 question: Is there something wrong with this?

And the answer is, I don’t know.