Russell Okung argues for NFL guaranteed contracts, but will players strike to get them?

When you take a step back, it’s astounding that NFL players have so few guaranteed contracts.

We all know how the game works by now. The team and player (and his agent) announce some ridiculously large contract terms, but the player actually sees a fraction of that total because the deal isn’t fully guaranteed. An NFL player can be cut loose on a whim, while MLB or NBA players are in a far less dangerous sport and don’t have a worry about their contracts. The NFL is the most popular sport in America and has far more physical danger than basketball or baseball, yet operates without the guaranteed contracts that are standard in MLB and NBA.

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Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung, a NFLPA vice president who has long been a thoughtful voice for players’ rights, detailed in a long Twitter thread exactly why players need to fight for guaranteed deals. His points came as NBA players are signing the type of huge, guaranteed deals that NFL players should have secured a long time ago.

Will the NFL ever see the players as “partners”?

Okung’s entire thread is worth reading if you care about NFL labor issues — and you will in 2021 at the latest, because a work stoppage seems like a good possibility — but it’s worth breaking down some of his key points.

Okung’s use of the word “partners” is very interesting. While each sport has some labor/owner unrest, it seems the most contentious relationship is between NFL players and owners. While Houston Texans owner Bob McNair’s comments about his players are the most extreme of the group, they also seemed to be telling. There’s no partnership between the two sides. The NFL has constantly reminded the union since the last collective-bargaining agreement that it has all the power. The players can’t help but notice the condescending tone and actions coming from the owners.

Okung is right: It has never seemed like the NFL has viewed players as true partners in its multi-billion dollar endeavor.

Two issues stand out to Okung

The only way for the players to get some of the things they desire would be through a long work stoppage. The players need the CBA, mostly agreed to decades ago with a more friendly union that conceded all of the power to the league, to be completely redone. Okung recognized that.

Okung took aim at two specific items in the CBA that have allowed owners to skirt the issue of guaranteed deals.

While acknowledging salary caps in any sport aren’t good for players, two NFL-specific rules have really been an issue. First, Okung pointed out that teams use “dead money” on the salary cap as an excuse to pay players less in the present. Often teams cut a player before the end of his contract, and the remaining prorated part of the guaranteed money in the deal then counts against the cap.

Also, the NFL has an old and antiquated rule that requires all unpaid money guaranteed in a player’s deal must be put in an escrow account. If a player has $30 million guaranteed in his deal, and $20 million is in a signing bonus paid out right away with another $10 million guaranteed through future roster bonuses or salaries, that remaining $10 million must be in an escrow account. That acts as an excuse for leagues to limit guaranteed money. Okung pointed out that with business booming in the NFL, the escrow funding rule isn’t even necessary anymore.

Will the players be able to fight the NFL?

Okung made great points. He has been thinking these issues through for a long time; last fall he wrote a post for The Players’ Tribune that outlined a lot of his key points. His main point was players needing to organize and band together, which has always been a problem.

NFL players have short careers and because of the non-guaranteed money, most NFL players are usually on edge when it comes to money. Fans who spend no time studying the issue and a lot of time complaining paint a picture of all players as greedy millionaires, when there’s clearly more to the debate they willfully ignore.

Because NFL players don’t have ultimate financial security and short careers, they often aren’t willing to dig in for a prolonged labor fight. It’s hard to fight for the rights of players in future generations — and give up game checks to do so — when you don’t know if you’ll be around in a couple years, or even in a couple weeks.

The challenge isn’t understanding the battle. Okung and other smart players who understand the big picture very well have explained it in detail. The question, when the CBA is about to expire, will be if the players are finally willing to do what it takes to get from the owners what they should have had for decades.

Russell Okung, shown with the Denver Broncos during the 2016 season, outlined why NFL players need to fight for guaranteed deals. (AP)
Russell Okung, shown with the Denver Broncos during the 2016 season, outlined why NFL players need to fight for guaranteed deals. (AP)

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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