Malcolm Butler shows where NFL players are still powerless

Illustration by Mark Smith

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Thirty years ago this September, NFL players went on strike to fight for true unrestricted free agency. It's something baseball, hockey and basketball players take for granted, but NFL players have long been ridiculed for not having it and not fighting hard enough to attain it.

The walkout lasted all of 24 days, and the players got demolished.

Because of their deals with the league, the networks still had to pay their rights fees, and they broadcast games with replacement players. This made the product just visible enough to pressure the players to return. The resistance crumbled. Fifteen percent of players crossed the picket line, including big names such as Joe Montana, Dwight Clark, Lawrence Taylor, Roger Craig and Howie Long. The stars of the NFL's signature franchise, the 49ers, felt more loyalty toward owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who legendarily connected with his players as "family," than they did to their brotherhood of players.

The loss was so complete that the players have never gone on strike again, and in many ways they haven't recovered from 1987. One of the collateral victims is Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler, even though he wasn't born when that great Waterloo occurred. This offseason, Butler faces the possibility of being traded from this era's signature franchise, the Patriots, after winning two Super Bowl titles with the team. His crime is being an excellent football player and wanting to be paid like one.

Butler has a commonsense argument. He's one of the best cornerbacks in the league -- one whose 2016 salary ($600,000) was far beneath a player of his ability -- and players ostensibly should be valued by a coach, Bill Belichick, who says the Patriots' success is "all about the players." But as a restricted free agent without the service time to reach the open market, Butler has no power, and the Patriots have no obligation to negotiate with him. In fact, instead of investing in Butler-their homegrown success story who won them a Super Bowl by making arguably the single greatest play in the franchise's history-the Patriots signed Buffalo's Stephon Gilmore for $65 million, proving who is the hammer and who is the nail.

It's true that player salaries have skyrocketed since the 1987 strike. According to the NFL Players Association, free agent money has increased 18.7 percent over last season, with guaranteed money up 16.2 percent (through March 15). Even if nobody is willing to give the Patriots a first-round pick for Butler, he will play in New England for $3.91 million in 2017 under the terms of his restricted free agent status. But money is one thing and true agency is another. The real fight is over power-power for the Malcolm Butlers of the NFL to have more control over their careers, and power for teams to keep them right where they are, to keep them from leaving on their terms. NFL quarterbacks might as well be playing under a reserve clause, because transition and franchise tag designations and restricted free agency have the ability to keep healthy, elite quarterbacks in their prime -- Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Troy Aikman or Brett Favre -- from hitting the open market.

Meanwhile, the Patriots enjoy the plaudits from the industry, media and fans for the masterstroke of coldly navigating a system already weighted heavily in their favor. No one would ever confuse New England's joyless, "Do your job," Industrial Revolution-style efficiency with DeBartolo treating his Sunday warriors like kings. Fans might not be happy with the idea of trading Butler, but they largely don't take issue with how the Patriots embody this time of unsentimental production, when analytics are celebrated over heartbeats and total victory trumps compromise-even at the cost of defeating and discarding one of your own. The Patriots provide our mirror.

Without solidarity, the players always lose. Loyalty to DeBartolo resulted in a crushing union defeat then. Now, after witnessing the "No days off" Patriots bypassing him for a player who has never sweated a drop for them, Butler must wait either to be traded or for a team to make an offer the Patriots have the chance to match. He is, within the parameters of his industry, stuck.

Had the players won in 1987, maybe "loyalty" wouldn't be used as an insult fans hurl at players when they finally get to leave town. Maybe, just maybe, the NFL wouldn't get to treat players like the disposable widget the Patriots seem intent on proving Malcolm Butler to be.