- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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He was the public scapegoat for a dream season gone horribly bad, so the smart money might've been on the Philadelphia Eagles letting DeSean Jackson go. They could've just let him become a free agent, let him start a new life as a football player. After all, they should have been prepared from the beginning of last season for whatever trouble they perceived he might be. The organization gave big-money contracts to Michael Vick, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Vince Young and Nnamdi Asomugha, but they ignored Jackson -- ostensibly because the club had reservations about his character and behavior. Jackson responded by holding out of training camp.
Then he missed meetings and supposedly wasn't giving maximum effort, supposedly was one of the reasons the Eagles didn't live up to their preseason marquee billing. Jackson, one of the great deep threats in the game, didn't reach the 1,000-yard receiving mark and, for all of his abilities, caught only four touchdown passes.
But this being the NFL, the Eagles get to have it both ways. They don't have to think enough of Jackson to commit to him with a multiyear contract, while at the same time they think too much of him to allow him to leave town. So the club is expected to place the dreaded franchise tag on him, keeping him in Philadelphia for one more season.
Jackson will receive big money, probably about $10 million for the 2012 season. As a franchise player, he'll be one of the highest-paid receivers in football. But the lack of an opportunity for him to be an unrestricted free agent is exactly what the players should have been fighting against during last year's lockout. Unrestricted free agency should have been the line in the sand for them then, and they should still be after it like the holy grail now.
It is why, despite the façade of 10 years of labor peace in the new collective bargaining agreement, the job of the NFL players' association is nowhere near complete.
Outside of the military, it is difficult to think of an industry other than professional football in which an individual is not afforded the right, after some reasonable amount of time, to change jobs within his or her given field. Being able to choose a place to live and work is a simple American concept -- this isn't Cuba ... except in the NFL. There are a number of factors in Jackson's situation that are particularly galling: a club's immense power to control player movement, even for players it doesn't seem to like very much; the public's comfort level with that system; the owners' false insistence that the league can't thrive without it; and, worst of all, the players' refusal to make true, unrestricted free agency the core issue of their union.
The lack of freedom and power on the part of the players is, of course, the fault of the players themselves and their leaders who came before them. They failed to win free agency during the 1974 strike. They turned on themselves in 1982 with Ed Garvey. Players such as Joe Montana and Randy White and Steve Largent crossed picket lines in 1987. The players have been too short-sighted to envision a world of unrestricted free agency, or have been too afraid to take on the owners, or have been too selfish to see the world in a larger context.
From Curt Flood to Andy Messersmith to Catfish Hunter, baseball players have a history of fighting for free agency, fighting to destroy the reserve clause; and once victorious, they never looked back. Baseball owners responded with anger, frustration and collusion, of course, but they've never rolled back free agency. And look at baseball now: a different World Series winner every year, $200 million players and nearly $100 million in average payrolls -- and guaranteed contracts. In major league baseball, free agency boosts the game and the individual players.
Basketball players, too, fought for free agency; and while they had to wade through restrictive free agency in the form of matching offer sheets, they eventually won their freedoms. Same with hockey players. The NBA, it should also be noted, attempted during this past lockout to impose an NFL-like "franchise tag" on its stars, a move the players immediately refused.
But football players, who are the engine driving the train of the most lucrative, popular sport in America, still can't choose where they play. The predictable response in support of the NFL's rules is to frame an argument around money, and the conventional wisdom that the fans just want players to shut up and play. Tom Brady and every other franchised player -- including Jackson, if the Eagles slap the tag on him -- receive top-level compensation. Money, goes the argument, justifies their freedom being restricted, prevents players from complaining. This is a thin and specious contention at best, and plain stupid at worst. Money cannot patch everything.
That the NFL is willing to compensate a player at such a high rate is indicative of how much the league fears the power of the player to have unrestricted free agency, and how much it understands the true value of real free agency -- how much, for example, the Eagles recognize Jackson's value. The league is happy to let Jackson be paid an enormous amount for one season because it knows his franchise-tag salary will be just a fraction of what he could command on the open market.
More than any other league, the NFL fears the power of the players -- especially quarterbacks. The Patriots' Brady, who has been a starter for 11 years and has played in the Super Bowl five times, has never been an unrestricted free agent. Neither has Peyton Manning nor Drew Brees.
Brees' contract has expired. Chicago running back Matt Forte's contract is up, too. But the Saints and the Bears can use the franchise tag to keep those players from the open market. In effect, teams rarely lose control over their best players. Manning is owed $28 million by the Colts, who can opt not to pay it and allow him to become an unrestricted free agent; but the critical element is that the option belongs to the club. Manning cannot choose to reject it and test the market. If he becomes a free agent, it will be the Colts' decision. Not his.
The players have no one but themselves to blame. During the lockout, the league was shrewd enough to structure its public commentary around money (there was a $9 billion pie that needed to be divided), when two real issues -- eliminating the franchise tag and curbing commissioner Roger Goodell's power -- were nearly as important. But the players and union officials who negotiated this latest CBA now join the generations of football players who came before and missed the chance to change history. They didn't fight hard enough and are left with a system that pays them handsomely but allows them little power of self-determination. The only players who become unrestricted free agents are the ones whose teams no longer want them. (See: Moss, Randy; or Owens, Terrell. And perhaps quite soon, a damaged Peyton Manning.)
Especially led by a commissioner whose salary will soon crest $20 million, the owners must be aware of just how morally illegitimate it is to run a league that does not allow players the freedom to change teams. But football owners are still resistant in 2012 in the way that hard-line baseball owners were in the early 1970s. MLB's more moderate owners understood the illegitimacy of their position 35 years ago and urged commissioner Bowie Kuhn to implement some level of unrestricted free agency. Kuhn refused. The courts stepped in when arbitrator Peter Seitz struck down the reserve clause, and the game changed forever.
In the NFL, the teams still have the power and they use it. But no convincing argument can be made that pro football will collapse if, say, Aaron Rodgers is given the option to test the open market after five years with his current club.
Jackson will get his $10 million, but not a long-term contract with guarantees, and that should be a key point for a player with a history of concussions who was famously nearly decapitated on a vicious hit by Dunta Robinson a couple of years ago.
The Jackson case should be the latest example for the players of how football is an unpalatable business for them. They run the risk of career-threatening, even life-threatening, injury. Yet they have little financial certainty and a minimal amount of freedom. They are subject to a disciplinary system in which their appeals are heard by the same person -- Goodell -- who levies the original penalties. And after their careers are over, far too many of them die early, evidenced again this week by the death of former star wideout Freddie Solomon, who was only 59 years old.
The NFL is great to watch. But compared to the other three major sports leagues in this country, professional football certainly isn't that great to play.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.