Should NFL Running Backs Start Their Own Union?

Should running backs buck the NFLPA and form their own union?

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Complex Original

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In 2021, the NFLPA will negotiate their next collective bargaining agreement, which from here on out will be referred to as the CBA because everything’s just a helluva lot easier that way. As the two sides broker the new terms that’ll guide the sport for the next decade, they’ll likely tangle over the standard rights—how often they work, how much they make, etc. This may result in a lockout or strike that’ll be expedited once owners lose their license to print money and players realize the alternative option is working at Home Depot.

However, as the league continues to transform, we posit to you that when the next negotiations do come around NFL running backs should, in fact, tell the rest of the league to screw themselves in order to form a union of their own.

The average running back's career is a shade over two-and-a-half years, and they have an average salary below that of punters and kickers.

Why? Because different positions have different priorities, and the modern era has rendered them interchangeable robots who have the shortest careers of any athletes in the major pro sports. This short career costs them lots of money as they’re almost never taken on the first night of the NFL Draft since the league today has a run-pass ratio that’s akin to a flag football game. Combine that with the fact that running backs get repeatedly pulverized in an era where we’re all finally beginning to understand the extent of CTE and you have a sense that this is no longer a desirable position, or even a job that a window washer would leave his dead-end career for.

Consider this: The average running back's career is a shade over two-and-a-half years, and they have an average salary below that of punters and kickers. Also consider that nobody outside of crazy people (see: Jerry Jones, the late Al Davis, and whoever’s running the Browns) drafts running backs in the first round anymore. Over the last four seasons we’ve only seen three backs taken with a highly-coveted first round selection, and though you’re more than free to blame that on Trent Richardson, the reality is that it severely limits the amount of cash they can make during their career.

The old CBA, ratified after that brief lockout you long since forgot about in 2011, approved a rookie wage scale that essentially locked in a player’s worth and made it impossible for even a trained baboon posing as an agent to get less money for his client than the player picked behind him. Because of that, today's rookies no longer make more money than proven veterans at their positions. And though that sounds like a good thing—and at the time many thought it was—an unintended consequence of that was screwing many running backs out of their one chance at a big payday.

In fact, of the 32 starting running backs in the NFL, only seven of them were picked in the first round. One of them (Ezekiel Elliott) went in the top five, and as we established that's probably because Jerry Jones is certifiably bonkers. Furthermore, a whopping 19 of them came into the league since 2013, meaning the majority are still playing on their rookie contracts. A quick look at this graph should make it clear to anybody that falling in the draft exponentially messes with your money and leaves very few guaranteed dollars on the table. It's a disconcerting fact that most of the guaranteed rookie contract and signing bonus money goes to first rounders—with a little left over for second rounders. Certainly unsettling for anyone playing a game where any play could be their last.

Jamaal Charles #25 of the Kansas City Chiefs is tackled and injured

The reasoning for how this imbalance came to be is simple. A lot of running backs are seen as interchangeable, or as products of the offensive lines that create holes for them. It’s not a completely unfair line of thinking. In October of 2015, Jamaal Charles—the league’s second highest paid back—tore his ACL, and without him the Chiefs still won 11 games in a row and made the playoffs with some guy named Charcandrick West and some other guy named Spencer Ware. The six years that Ware and West have combined on their contracts are cheaper than a single season of Charles, and clearly the team has proven they can win some ball games without having to worry about the ACLs in either of Charles' $9-plus million knees (pick one, they've both been torn).

Currently there's only one running back amongst the top 75 highest paid players in the NFL, and that's Adrian Peterson, who finds himself in a three-way tie at 44th.

As we've learned, it's no longer just knees players need to worry about, but also heads. During his abnormally long career, Emmitt Smith had well over 5,000 touches and it's very possible those collisions left his brain mashed. The Hall of Famer and NFL's all-time leading rusher once described playing in a single football game as “like being in 30-40 car accidents.”

If there’s any position that needs individual protection it’s running backs, as no other position in football combines so few years to earn money with such brutality. After all, running into the teeth of a defense is bad for players' health, and in a game that has passed them by, a union might be necessary to fairly compensate people for acting as protectors/tackling dummies in order to open up the passing game. Currently there's only one running back amongst the top 75 highest paid players in the NFL, and that's Adrian Peterson, who finds himself in a three-way tie at 44th with cornerback Sam Shields and sometimes quarterback Brock Osweiler.

Running back Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings

On top of all the other problems they face, running backs find themselves in the midst of a catch-22. If they're used as frequently as backs of the past, they break down. There's almost a century of precedent for that as NFL backs with 300-plus carries in a season tend to hit a wall the following year, because, well, a single offseason can't recharge the body from hitting 300+ human walls a year. However, their role in an offense is also dwindling on an annual basis as teams continue to rely more and more on the pass, making them seem less essential to putting points on the board. Simply put, if running backs are used too much their downfall begins, which limits their bargaining power. And if they're used too little they don't amass the stats to get paid, which also limits their bargaining power.

Because of these inescapable realities there’s hardly any incentive for a front office to sign any ball carrier—beyond the top of the top tier guys—to a lucrative second contract. Instead a common M.O. seems to be drafting a guy to a four-year deal, using him up, and then rinsing and repeating a few years down the road. From there you can send your ex-ball carrier off to a series of one-year deals, training camp cuts, early involuntary retirement, or NFL purgatory. The entire process is not unlike when you take a car off the lot and immediately lose value on it, except your car won't end up feeling physical pain when it eventually breaks down.

All that being said, running backs are still imperative to the game. They catch, they run, they block, sometimes they throw, they get their asses kicked on a weekly basis. And then, almost inevitably, an ACL goes *pop*. From there they’re axed to make room for the next guy of comparable size and speed. A union is a worthy solution to making sure that the most expendable of NFL players remain compensated long after their knees grind to dust and multiple surgeries leave their legs looking like Mickey Rourke or Lil Kim's faces.

Now, NFL fans aren’t exactly known for their willingness to embrace change, which is a big reason why this article will probably anger a few people. But they’re also not going to enjoy watching a glorified 7-on-7 drill, and the league’s QBs won’t enjoy having defensive ends pin their ears back every play without fear of having to stop a running play. Combine that with the fact that the league wouldn’t work with scab backs, as fumbles, injuries, and their frequent inability to hit holes would in time drive coaches and fans insane. The league would then come to realize how much leverage runners truly have.

Still, the odds of unionization in this current climate are slim, and one hastily-constructed argument of some guy online is unlikely to help. 

But until protections are slowly rolled back, and Americans revert to working six-and-a-half day weeks, and using child laborers, getting paid a buck an hour, getting fired for being sick, and having emergency exits painted onto the walls to save a little money, “union” will continue to be a bad word for many. We live in a country where way a healthy number of people will continue to side with management, while simultaneously bitching about how bad their boss sucks.

So, if this union idea doesn't work and running backs are resigned to getting cut the second their rookie deals or knees are through, there's only one last thing they can do: Learn to run routes. 

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