Bought & Sold: Free Agency, American Sport and the Question of Language

| March 20th, 2023

[Note: These ideas are not entirely fleshed out. But since I have this space, I thought I would start fleshing them out in public.]

Writing a unique NFL column at this time of the year is often a difficult proposition. Look around the internet and you’ll understand what I mean. Everybody writes their “free agents to target” piece, and then their “free agents acquired” piece, and then their “free agents still available” piece, and then their “free agency round-up” piece. The kids doing this can utilize video and throw around buzzy terminology like “sudden route runner”. The byline brigade will get their off-the-record scout sources to take a break from filing a 13-page report on some Vanderbilt slot corner to provide some punch-up quotations. (“Our pro personnel guys see him as a starter.”) None of it is offensive. But none of it is particularly interesting, either.


So today I want to consider something that has long interested me when it comes to the NFL, and really the whole of American sport: language. When a European soccer club acquires a player, they “buy” him and the club they buy him from “sells” him. When a team gives a player to another team, that player is said to be out “on loan”. Players are property, athletic commodities possessed by supremely rich ownership groups, and the language used to reflect their movement in the sport reflects that. It’s honest. It’s real.

But we don’t use that kind of language here. Why? The Bears just bought Tremaine Edmunds. They own his ability to play football for the length of their agreed-upon contract. (For the Marxists in the audience, this would be his “labor value”.) But we use language like “signed him” because it’s a fine way to pretend the player possesses an autonomy he does not, in fact, possess. There is a softness to the word “signing”. It gives the player agency, as he is the one always photographed doing the signing. (We never see George McCaskey putting ink to paper.) “Buying” denotes the harsher reality.

When we hear language like, “Team X cut Player Y to Save Z” do we actually acknowledge that phrase as meaning “The Moon Monkeys fired Jim Tawilliger to save a buck”? A “cap casualty” is an economically driven pink slip, an acknowledgement to the player that the contract initially signed was (in the long run) bullshit and a reminder that his child most likely needs to make a whole new set of friends in a whole new city. Can you imagine this language being employed in any other profession on the earth? “Sorry, Bill, you’re a good employee but now you cost too much and we have set an arbitrary limit on how much we can spend on our workforce.”

And what of the salary cap, generally? ESPN pays $1.1 billion annually for Monday Night Football. Amazon pays $1 billion a year for Thursday Night Football. The three networks also kick in about a billion each year, with YouTube now ponying up another $2 billion for Sunday Ticket. That’s more than $7 billion dollars, which divided by 32, means television contracts ALONE bring each team about $220 million annually. Before a ticket is sold. Before a beer leaves the hand of a vendor. Before you get your kid that Justin Fields jersey for Christmas. The reported revenue for the Chicago Bears was $520 million in 2021. What is the salary cap next year? $224.8 million. And folks wonder why the owners pay Roger Goodell what they do.

One might argue that the European model is not a good comparison since teams don’t technically sell players to other teams. Well of course they do. They just don’t do it transparently, for money, because of the salary cap. Baseball trades often involve cash considerations, and those considerations are rarely disclosed. NFL trades don’t involve cash because it would just be billionaire owners lining each other’s pockets and that would appear unseemly. So, they trade another commodity: the draft pick. To front offices and coaches, draft picks are players that can make the roster better. To owners, draft picks are price tag.

We use the language we do for one reason: it’s easier on us. Soft terminology allows us to distance ourselves from the reality of this ruthless business. The fan relationship with sport is dependent upon a belief that the players on the field want to win a championship as much as they do. And while most are desperate to win a chip, most also don’t care where they win that chip. Their value is in their athletic ability, and they want to play where that ability yields the most financial security. In other words, they are for sale, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.

Concussion Protocol.

This abuse of language does not only pertain to financial matters. One wonders how the public perception around brain injuries would differ if we simply called brain injuries brain injuries and stayed away from the soft terminology of “concussion protocol”. Concussions are bruises suffered to the brain as a result of drastic impact with the cranium. They are brain trauma. How about we put (Brain Trauma) in the injury report and see how folks respond to it?

Bradley Winklebones – Out (Brain Trauma)

Once again, soft terminology allows us distance, this time from the realities of the game’s violence. We have never been so aware of the physical trauma endured by NFL players; one post-playing career story more tragic than the next. At the same time, the sport has never been more popular as television product. What does this say about us? And do any of us want to say it?

The Point.

NFL players are magnificent athletes who sell their skills to billionaires, risking the physical for the financial. They are loyal not to the city they play in or the uniform they wear, but only to the name on their paycheck at that moment. They are bought and sold commodities. And we will better understand both this game and the men who own/play it when we begin to use the proper language to describe it.

Tagged: , , , ,