Tuesday, December 9, 2008 Updated: August 6, 5:20 PM ET
For some players like Burress, financial security provides too much leeway
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
Kansas City Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards hit the lights and let the film roll last Monday afternoon. He wanted his players to see the embarrassment.
He wanted to sear the image of New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress turning himself into New York City police into the memories of all the people in that meeting room. And once the video had ended, Edwards posed one simple question to his team: "Can anybody explain this to me?"
The truth is that nobody can make sense of what Burress did when he allegedly took an unregistered gun into a Manhattan nightclub and wound up facing charges that could result in his serving 3½ years in prison. What we can do, however, is realize that he won't be the last NFL player to jeopardize his career over sheer stupidity. All you have to do is look at the money Burress was making -- he had signed a five-year, $35 million extension a few months back -- and the fact that the Giants had to suspend him earlier this season for repeatedly breaking team rules. It's that combination of wealth and arrogance that is playing a bigger role in some of the sad stories we're seeing in the league.
This isn't to say money is the only factor in Burress' plight. It's simply a reality that NFL players are making more cash than ever before, and some just can't handle that privilege. Last year Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was convicted of federal dog-fighting charges just three years after he received $37 million in bonuses with his $120 million extension. This year the Chiefs benched Pro Bowl running back Larry Johnson for three games when he repeatedly showed up late to meetings and two team flights -- and this was after he received $19 million in guaranteed money with his five-year extension in August 2007 (the league also suspended Johnson for a game after he was twice charged with simple assault).
Now we have Burress, who reportedly has been fined at least 40 times by his team.
So while there's been plenty of lengthy discourse about athletes and guns over the last week, it's time to talk about another disturbing matter: the blatant sense of entitlement that is a common thread in these stories. The issues of these three players essentially can be connected to the fact that they've played in a league in which teams have had more money to spend (the salary cap this year was $116 million per team as compared to $58.4 million in 1999) and more opportunities to guarantee the cash in contracts that aren't fully guaranteed.
"I think things have changed," Edwards said. "And it changed when the money got bigger and athletes started to get more attention."
To be fair, there are plenty of players in the NFL who don't do anything wrong. A player like Tampa Bay outside linebacker Derrick Brooks looks at a case like Burress' and sums it up in one sentence: "It's an individual player making an individual decision that leads to individual consequences."
But we all know that the majority of solid citizens in the league aren't going to get credit for carrying themselves like actual professionals. That's because nobody gets recognized for doing what he should be doing in the first place.
Players like Vick, Burress and Johnson bother us because they seemingly have everything they could want and they still operate as if the world owes them more. They just don't get it, and that's because there's a greater sense of security in their bank accounts.
"There are some guys in this league who can get an $80 million contract and they'll think they can just go out and blow $5 million," said Chiefs guard Brian Waters. "It doesn't even matter if that contract is only worth $30 million. They get caught up in those numbers."
"I've talked to some people around the league and there is a sense that this kind of behavior is only going to get worse," said one AFC personnel director. "Some of these guys have been coddled for so long that once they get to a higher level, they know they're going to have a chance to play no matter what they do. You see how some guys get treated in high school now -- with the media attention and the games on television -- and then they get spoiled in college. And when you compound that with the money they're now making in the league, you're going to get some guys who think they're untouchable."
Instead of the negotiations being about numbers or what he's meant to the team, it will be about whether he's a good investment.
-- Kansas City Chiefs OL Brian Waters, on the ripple effect of some players' conduct issues adversely affecting all contract negotiations
The reason other players should be concerned about this type of thinking is that it eventually might influence their own livelihoods. If there are more stories like those of Burress permeating the league, there are likely to be more teams wary of paying fat extensions.
"I do think you'll find more teams who will have a harder time giving a guy that big payday when it comes time to re-sign," Waters said. "They're going to be wondering more about what that guy will do when he gets paid. Instead of the negotiations being about numbers or what he's meant to the team, it will be about whether he's a good investment."
The reality is the NFL is entering a new era when "screw-you money" is more available to players. When the league and the NFL Players Association negotiated their last collective bargaining agreement in 2006, it allowed for far more money to be designated for players' contracts than ever before. That meant more guaranteed cash in deals that would be negotiated. And it also meant less leverage for owners who had been
accustomed to keeping players on edge with non-guaranteed deals.
While athletes in other pro sports leagues had the comfort of guaranteed cash, pro football players always had to be mindful of doing anything possible to cement that next big contract. The teams loved that business model because it kept the employees on edge. It made the players understand that they could get away with only so much before their careers were in jeopardy.
Now, this isn't to say the league has had any more scandalous behavior lately than it has in the past. It simply feels like we're hearing about more silliness than ever before, the kind of immaturity that comes from a dangerous combination of wealth and arrogance. And while NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has tried to combat those issues with his personal conduct policy, we should still be bracing for something much sadder than Burress' story: The likelihood that this won't be the last time we hear about a highly paid NFL star falling into senseless trouble.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com