Why NFL players will never make NBA (or MLB) money

Could MLB, NBA salaries hurt NFL's future? (1:39)

Herm Edwards dismisses the idea that the amount of money baseball and basketball players are making will hurt the future of the National Football League. (1:39)

If it's early July, NFL players must be rolling their eyes over NBA free-agent contracts. The floodgates opened last week with basketball free agency, and many NFL players interrupted their offseasons to tweet rueful comments.

Only the temperature differentiates this phenomenon from the one that occurs every December, when NFL players double down on their angst during Major League Baseball's free-agency period. It's a biannual bellyaching session that always hits the same jealous notes about guaranteed money and whopping salaries for midrange players.

But simple storylines can make for false equivalencies, and comparing NFL contracts to NBA contracts is like equating apples to ... well ... 747s.

"It's basic math," said George Atallah, the NFLPA's assistant executive director for external affairs, said Tuesday. "Our business has 53 players per team. Theirs has 13. Our average career length is three and a half years. Theirs is longer. It just doesn't make sense to compare."

But since Atallah's own constituents are the ones making the comparisons, it's worth examining nonetheless.

The main reason NFL contracts aren't -- and never will be -- NBA contracts is that the NFL's workforce is a unique one, with unique concerns. The owners locked out the players in 2011 over the revenue split, which meant the players weren't getting back on the field without agreeing to a smaller portion of the pie. In exchange, the union fought for and secured things such as injury protections in contracts, a salary floor and improved benefits packages that includes health care and pensions for players and their families for life. If your average career length is only three and a half years and your injury rate is 100 percent, health care in perpetuity carries significant value.

But oh, those numbers. Timofey Mozgov got $64 million guaranteed from the Lakers as the NBA cap skyrocketed at an unprecedented pace, while Eli Manning and Philip Rivers received $65 million in not-exactly-guarantees last NFL offseason.

Part of the issue is an NBA system that imposes maximum salaries on veterans tied to service time and the salary cap. If there were no cap and unfettered free agency, teams could and likely would offer LeBron James more than $60 million a year. But as of now, he's capped around $30 million (which is one reason he keeps opting out after one year and renegotiating as the cap and his service time go up). The extra money has to go somewhere, which is how Mozgov and Mike Conley, who's now making more annually than any NFL player ($30.5 million), get paid like superstars.

But isn't there more money to go around in the NFL? If the NBA generated $5.2 billion in revenue last year and the players get 50 percent of that, then they're sharing $2.6 billion. Meanwhile, NFL players received $6.11 billion of the $13 billion in total revenue (47 percent). Those are raw numbers that can be picked apart, but you get the idea. In general, part of the issue the complaining NFL players have is that their league is making twice as much money and their contracts aren't nearly as lucrative.

That's where Atallah's "basic math" comes in. There are 1,696 active players on NFL rosters at any given time during the season (plus the many on injured reserve, who are getting paid); there are 390 on NBA rosters. $2.6 billion divided by 390 is a lot higher number than $6.11 billion divided by 1,696. So it's actually not crazy that Mozgov (sorry to keep picking on you, Timofey) now makes more per year than any current wide receiver does.

Where NFL players really get upset is over the issue of guarantees. But there, they have only themselves to blame. There's nothing in the NBA or MLB collective bargaining agreements that requires contracts to be fully guaranteed, just as there's nothing in the NFL collective bargaining agreement that prohibits it. Over the years, baseball and basketball players have used their free-agent leverage to demand fully guaranteed deals, and as a result that became the standard.

Fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL won't arrive until some player who wields significant leverage insists on it and is willing to walk away from the table over it. Agents and players hoped that someone like Russell Wilson last year or Andrew Luck this year would breach that barrier, but neither did. Artificial constraints such as the franchise tag make it difficult, sure. The Colts could have held onto Luck another two years, possibly three, without committing long term if he dug in on guarantees and they didn't want to break. But hypothetically, if Luck had insisted he wouldn't sign without a full guarantee, the Colts may eventually have gotten scared about losing him and caved. We will never know, and it could be a while before any player arrives at the bargaining table with Luck-level leverage.

It's not all bad for NFL players. The new CBA has brought injury guarantees and has resulted in fully guaranteed deals for first-round rookies. Even with the new rookie wage scale the NFL instituted in 2011, you'd rather have Jared Goff's contract than Ben Simmons' contract. But that's the early-career end of the market, and the deals blowing everybody's minds right now are for players in the middle of their careers.

In that respect, the NFL had a decent year. Players such as Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon signed deals whose size shocked a lot of people and moved the market at their position. Neither is a superstar and Vernon especially is unproven relative to the contract he got. The scale of his deal doesn't rattle public opinion the way Conley's contract did in the NBA, but down the road it will matter to NFL players who want to make more. They just have to realize that, no matter what, they're not going to be making NBA money. The math just doesn't make sense.