COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Russell Okung looked on as free agency opened in the NBA at the start of July, with a dizzying amount of guaranteed money going to marginal players, and thought about his own struggle to secure similar gains in the NFL.
What followed was a series of 17 tweets, expressing his frustration with player salaries in the NFL. It began like this:
(NFL GUARANTEED MONEY THREAD)— Russell Okung (@RussellOkung) July 3, 2018
I will never understand how billionaire team owners have convinced the public that the players, who put their bodies on the line every week and make less than 50% of league revenue, are the "ungrateful" ones.
Considering football's level of brute, immanent physicality, high turnover as well as the short life cycle of its participants, it would seem to me that NFL players are in the most need of fully guaranteed contracts.— Russell Okung (@RussellOkung) July 3, 2018
You've likely heard the story before: NFL players have the most injury risk, but when it comes to guaranteed compensation, they are the least protected when compared to the fully guaranteed contracts in the NBA and Major League Baseball.
Well, Okung -- the Los Angeles Chargers' left tackle who is now a member of the NFL Players Association executive committee -- would like to change that.
"It's pretty simple: How much risk are NFL players taking on in correlation to how much money that we're actually getting that's real cash?" asked Okung. "I think sometimes people are so swayed by whatever is put out in the media, and you sort of have this little caveat next to it that says guaranteed money. But even with that, there's tons of ways for teams to offset guaranteed money so that it's not guaranteed.
"So what we want to make sure is that every player that has the privilege to play in the NFL makes the most that they can in this game. It's just so sad because there's so many guys that have played in this game that is susceptible to high rates of injury and have nothing to show for it, and the next thing you know they're a dementia case."
With the league's 10-year collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2020 NFL season, Okung points to those upcoming negotiations between owners and players as an opportunity to change that dynamic.
According to the CBA, teams are required to spend 89 percent of the salary cap, something that's up to inspection every four years. However, many teams do not spend to this number, carrying over large sums of unused cap room not used on players.
The NFL distributed more than $8 billion in national revenue, mostly from its television deals, in 2017. Each team pulled in $255 million in revenue -- so Okung believes the money is there to pay players guaranteed contracts.
"I'm arguing against the whole CBA," Okung said. "It's flawed, and I think as things change and the media landscape changes, we have to think about things differently -- that includes agents, players and unions, too.
"Players are serious about it -- they're understanding that this is going to be a pivotal time. I don't think there will be any other time like this in history. This CBA will be the biggest ever. There's nothing like this because you have cord cutting going on, so technology companies are going to be bidding for our rights. Just in TV revenue alone, we're looking at $3 [billion] to $4 billion maybe. That's insane. The money at stake is changing, and the way people are going to watch games is changing. Sports gambling is coming up, and that's going to be a huge industry for sports teams."
Okung believes he's an advocate for players because of his interests outside of football. The Houston native negotiated his past two contracts without an agent, which received some criticism in NFL circles.
A self-described computer geek, Okung has invested in tech companies and dreams of becoming the first black owner of an NFL franchise.
To achieve his goal, Okung has the tough task of persuading rank-and-file members of his union such as Chargers tight end Virgil Green to be willing to potentially sit out a season to achieve a lofty goal like guaranteed contracts.
A seven-year veteran, Green recently signed a three-year, $8.6 million deal to join the Chargers in free agency, which included $5.9 million in guaranteed money.
Green, 30, already has made $10.5 million in his NFL career, and he has come to terms with the reality of the current agreement with ownership.
"The number that I've asked for in a contract I've always gotten because my number isn't like some of these other guys," Green said. "So it is different from my perspective, and tight ends in terms of contract always get low-balled. That's just what history has done -- unless you're a top-five guy you're not going to get a very good contract.
"The first thing I think about that [NBA guaranteed contracts] is they have 13 guys on a squad. In the NFL you have 53 on the team, so that's a lot of guys that you have to pay. And this sport is more physical. I would love to see guys get guaranteed contracts, but if you look at things from both sides, it's tough to say if you give a guy a guaranteed contract for four or five years, you don't know if he's going to last. I just think our sport is a lot different. It's tougher to evaluate -- you never know how guys are handling things mentally, how they're taking care of their body and how they see themselves progressing in the future."
One potential bargaining chip for the players could be how the anthem issue is handled during the regular season. Owners and players met last week in an attempt to establish a consistent policy for all 32 teams so that protests against social and racial injustice during the national anthem will not serve as a political issue or distraction during the season.
"We won't do much until we find out what's going on with the meetings in New York right now with the union and the league office," Chargers GM Tom Telesco said about the issue. "Once they come up with what their guidelines are, what their policies are, then we'll get together with the players, decide how we're going to handle it and go from there. Probably not a lot different than last year."
Okung raised his right fist during the anthem to protest social and racial injustice all of last year, but he has not decided how he will handle things for the upcoming season.
"We're all one," Okung said. "It can't be players over here, and owners over there. That's not helpful, but what it can be is player and league ownership against everyone else. That can happen, and I would love for us to get to that point, where players feel supported by the NFL and there are ways to move on from this issue. We can do it together. But not against each other -- that will never happen."