Let's talk about the myth that superstar athletes in the NFL and NBA are compensated fairly. The truth is, the best players in those leagues are grossly underpaid because of the salary cap. For Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, that's a bad system.
A fast riser at football's most important position, Wilson helped the Seahawks reach the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, including two that ended in the Super Bowl and one with Seattle winning the Lombardi trophy. Seattle knows what it has: Wilson is a keeper. But at what salary? Like all teams, the Seahawks must balance their desire to reward Wilson with the need to maintain cap flexibility. Obviously, those issues are at odds.
Although Wilson is a face-of-the-franchise performer, the former third-round draft pick won't be paid what he deserves for his role in the NFL's ongoing economic boom. Players who produce at a high level while leading their teams to championships provide the foundation of a league that reportedly generated about $10 billion in revenue last season. By 2027, the NFL hopes to produce about $25 billion.
In contrast, this season's salary cap is set at $143.28 million per team. That's a small slice of a very big pie.
Even if Wilson receives a record package -- with an average salary of $22 million, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the NFL's highest-paid player -- he'll still be a bargain based on the league's immense profitability. Not that the Seahawks are planning to make Wilson a record offer.
The buzz is that the Seahawks, despite Wilson's impressive accomplishments for a quarterback at the outset of his career, would rather not break new salary ground because they don't have to (Wilson is under the team's control for at least three more seasons). There's also no doubt that Wilson has received considerable help from Seattle's formidable defense and all-pro running back Marshawn Lynch.
However, the argument that Wilson is nothing more than a game manager is ridiculous. That became clear after Wilson rallied the Seahawks to victory over the Packers in last season's NFC Championship Game.
And ask yourself this about Wilson: How much could he command in free agency if there were no salary cap?
With elite signal-callers in high demand, the list of bidders, undoubtedly, would be long for a charismatic winner who won't turn 27 until November. There's no way of determining how much Wilson would receive in such a scenario. It's safe to assume, though, his salary would set a new mark. Wilson's situation is a glaring example of why the cap doesn't work for superstars, sports attorney David Cornwell says.
"Why should a Super Bowl-winning, and two-time Super Bowl-appearing, quarterback be fighting for money?" Cornwell, who represents 2015 No. 1 pick Jameis Winston, said in a phone interview the other day.
"If [teams] can cut players when they don't perform to their contracts, why can't we have a system where players are guaranteed to benefit [as much as they should] when they perform?"
NFL players are compensated spectacularly (the league's starting salary is $435,000). Anyone who suggests otherwise should be ridiculed.
But relative to the revenue they generate, superstars have been exploited historically. The de facto partners of owners, superstars don't get a big enough cut of television contracts, merchandising and ticket revenue. And the salary cap, designed to foster competitive balance among teams, has improved the owners' bottom lines much more than it has benefited their most important employees.
"As a general proposition, there's a strong argument that can be made that, when properly applied, a salary cap can be good for the overall good of the game," said Cornwell, who worked for the NFL early in his career.
"But there are so many moving parts to determine if it's properly applied. And, there's no question about it: The current salary-cap structure is especially harmful to the best players."
As well as those in the NBA.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James has dominated the NBA over the past seven seasons, winning four league MVP awards and twice being selected the NBA Finals MVP. Yet, James, who this week became an unrestricted free agent for the third time, has never had the NBA's highest salary.
By signing contracts that have included escape clauses, James has maximized his earning potential, re-entering free agency and receiving new deals as the cap has increased. Unfortunately for James, cap rules limit how much he can earn based on many factors. There's no telling what teams would offer James if the salary cap were not a factor. NBA revenue is about $5 billion.
When one the greatest players in NBA history fails to get close to fair contract value because of the salary cap, major change is needed.
"It's indefensible that LeBron James exposes himself to the risk of injury by opting out and taking one-, two-year deals to get higher salary-cap numbers," Cornwell said. "And it's not just an issue for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"All of the other owners shouldn't want him to do it ... because a rising tide lifts all ships. That's what the superstar players provide. Why would anyone want to risk [losing] those players because of the salary cap?"
That's a good question. But with revenues ballooning for owners in the NFL and NBA under the salary cap system, it's a risk they're apparently willing to take.