Down with Crabtree! Down with the draft?

crabtreesIs Michael Crabtree ready to sign? Deion Sanders, who is inexplicably one of  Crabtree’s advisors, seems to think so. I don’t really see what other options he has left: The 49ers can’t trade him now, and if he waits through the fall deadline without signing to re-enter the draft next spring, he will sign for significantly less than he is being offered now (not to mention the time value of money, etc).  As has been repeatedly mentioned, it was probably quite stupid for Crabtree to hold out this long.

That said, from a labor perspective at least, I continue to find the draft and the associated hoopla relatively unfair for players. There is no question that Crabtree could have commanded more money from another team (Jets?). Yet he is effectively owned by the 49ers for at least a year, presenting him a hobson’s choice: sign for whatever the 49ers are willing to offer, or sit out an entire year for less money, take a PR beating, and possibly jeopardize your whole career. Imagine if doctors were drafted out of medical school. “Sorry Mr. Number One at Harvard Med, but you’ve been selected by a fine hospital in Topeka, Kansas! They are offering a nice salary. Should you not want to go there, you will have to sit out from practicing medicine for a year, and then maybe try your luck next year. Sorry!” Or the same for the world’s bankers, librarians, pharmacists, and coaches, where an employer would get the opportunity to own that person’s rights for a year, offering the choice between a take-it-or-leave-it offer and a year of unemployment.

I know what many of the responses will be: But they offered him millions of dollars! He should sign! Well, maybe under the current system he should have. But the United States fancies itself a meritocracy, and players, like all other professions, should be entitled to bargain for the most someone is willing to pay for them. If Crabtree thinks he should be paid more than Darius-Heyward Bey, he should be able to negotiate for that from various competitors. Of course the 49ers weren’t going to up their offer: in five years, there will still be the 49ers, but this is Crabtree’s shot to get paid (imagine if he got injured). Indeed, they feared the Jets were coming in to promise more than they were and they filed tampering charges! Again, imagine if you were deciding whether to take a new job, and a different employer offered you a more lucrative offer and your current employer — or not-even, just a company that “owns” your rights for a year based on some kind of ceremonial “draft” — could prevent anyone from offering you anything.

So what are the alternatives? Increasingly I’d like to see some kind of auction system installed instead of the draft. (Fat chance, now that the draft is such a media event.) It’d involve the same elements of scouting, and the like, except that the team could allocate the money however they feel. The salary cap would still exist, so Jerry Jones couldn’t just outbid everyone mercilessly. Moreover, it would give real choices to teams to make decisions based on whether they want a big star player like Crabtree and want to pay him a lot, or want to go after a lot of mid-level guys, or some mixture. A similar system would just be a Madden franchise-mode-esque series of free agency “rounds,” where you’d have periods of free agency activity though maybe limits on how many guys a team could sign during that time — i.e. the Cowboys couldn’t announce 15 rookie signings on day one and be done with it. You’d still get your TV drama, but the players could shop around a bit more, as could teams. Indeed, I’d be more excited to see who the shrewd dealmakers were in this system than the current hodge-podge draft system.

I think these would work because we’re approaching this kind of thing anyway. One, the draft is a relic of a time before free agency — the majority of guys on NFL rosters were not drafted by that team, so any effect on the league and team composition would be less than people think. Second, in ye olden days the draft went on more than twice as long as it does now. In other words, the league has been moving to limit the anachronistic draft more and more, and I can only hope it will finish the job. Though I’m not holding my breath.

In sum: I think Crabtree has severely mishandled himself by holding out this long. But that analysis only applies within the current draft-framework. It’s a long shot, but I think the NFL would be well-advised to replace the draft with some kind of auction or free-agency-by-round system. It’d be significantly better for the players, and at least equal  for the teams.  (And in the long run I think it’d be better for teams to, beyond the initial shock). In other words, eliminating the draft would be the pareto optimal thing to do. It’s too late for Crabtree, but maybe his saga can get people thinking about this stuff.

  • 4.0 Point Stance

    This is about as likely as the NFL announcing that the forward pass is outlawed. Most European soccer fans think the draft system is completely insane, although they also think the idea of a salary cap is insane. The closest system to what you’re proposing is probably the camps the baseball teams have set up in the Dominican Republic and such. But in that situation there’s such an obvious power differential between labor and management.

    And I’m not an expert on the medical profession, but I think there is something approaching a draft? After you graduate you are assigned to a hospital, that might be halfway across the country, and you don’t really have a say. They have your rights for 3 or 4 years at a below market rate, at which point you become a “free agent.”

  • As the tortured spouse of doctor stuck in her 4th year of underpaid compulsory service, I can assure you there is in fact a draft of sorts for doctors. It works like sorority match, if you’re at all familiar with that catastrophe. You interview at a bunch of programs in the field you are interested in (on your own dime) and submit a list ranking the programs. The programs also submit a list ranking the candidates they want and then a supposedly impartial organization “matches” the doctor with the highest-ranked program that accepted them. I say supposedly impartial because its obvious to everyone that the organization just acts as a front to disguise the cartel the programs have formed in order to “most efficiently” distribute the resources. For the hyper-competitive fields, it works exactly like a draft. Wanna do dermatology? Be ready to move to Detroit and make less than a waiter at a corner diner for the next 4 years, buddy!

  • Well, then I picked a bad example. I edited the post to reflect that (leaving in evidence of my gaffe). Seriously, maybe doctors need to say something to the NFL players association.

  • Erskine

    Chris, I love your posts usually, but will have to tell you — doctors do get “drafted.” — just like Sean said. It is called the Match. On a certain day in the spring, all 4th year medical students get a letter telling them where they will do their residency. The difference between that and the draft is that physicians do rank the places they would like to go, but physicians do get exactly like ” “Sorry Mr. Number One at Harvard Med, but you’ve been selected by a fine hospital in Topeka, Kansas! They are offering a nice salary. Should you not want to go there, you will have to sit out from practicing medicine for a year, and then maybe try your luck next year. Sorry!” “

  • lawrence

    If your proposal was adopted, Michael Lewis could write “Moneyball II”

  • dWj

    As it happens, I know a lot about the internship assignment program, and guess what — if you got sent to Detroit, it really is because nobody you liked better wanted you instead of who they did take. Any system in which more interns are getting their preferred positions would have to force popular programs to increase the number of positions available. (I’m sorry you didn’t get into Harvard Medical either. I hope you didn’t whine as badly that time.) If the NFL draft operated like the Match, that would be a huge step forward in terms of fairness.

    I’ve thought that teams could be given a partial exemption from the salary cap for players who have been with them for five years, and that you could award similar senior status to a player who plays with the team that’s drafted him. He’d still be free to go to some other team, it might just take a little bigger salary cap hit. The fact is, though, that the NFL is run by the teams, and the teams like their monopoly powers. As other commenters have said, nothing increasing fairness to the players is likely to happen just because it’s the right thing to do.

  • Jay

    All of this is a bargaining issue, and as it currently stands, is perfectly acceptable as it relates to terms and conditions of employment.

    We’ll see what direction the NFLPA goes under its new president.

  • dWj

    Just to be clear: If the Jets preferred Crabtree to anyone they drafted, and Crabtree preferred the Jets to the 49ers, in an NRMP system, he would be with the Jets.

  • Justin S

    Captain obvious I know, but the draft exists to gives teams a chance at getting better. The Auction system is worse then the current system because of the money. Could you imagine how much money a #1 overall QB would command via draft? It would cripple franchises even worse for failing a top 5 pick.

    Second, it sounds like you think the Player should have a choice of where he goes (I could be reaching for that). That once again puts good teams at a competitive advantage, which is completely against the point of the draft.

    IMO, the draft is almost perfect as it is. Crabtree is just a baby. Calvin Johnson didn’t cry about going to Detroit. The draft, minus it’s insane top 5 money, seems to work great for teams that do their home work. NE, Baltimore, Giants, and the Colts all do fantastic work in the draft, getting steals throughout.

  • ZDog

    I think auction is the way to go. With NFL revenue-sharing, there is not a huge disparity between big- and small-market teams. Keep the salary caps and floors, and an auction would work great.

  • I R A Darth Aggie

    Was Crabtree required to participate in the draft? I don’t see why he couldn’t refuse to participate in the draft and negotiate as a free agent like any other job seeker.

    Of course, it’s a union shop so he has to abide by the labor agreement regardless of his status in the union. Oh, and he might get a nice signing bonus as a prospective free agent, but nothing like he might be able to get as the 10th pick.

    Of course, we have previous examples of John Elway and Eli Manning getting what they wanted.

  • Jim

    I really thought I was the only one that believed the NFL are bogus. The whole idea of the draft makes little sense for anyone except the league office really. The worst team that drafts first is forced to take a QB, LT, or a pass rusher as no other position warrants the money given in that slot. The whole top 10 are taking players that have huge salaries that do more to hurt the team than help in most cases. If there was a free market for entering players bad teams would be able to go in and take the QB that would have been drafted number 1 a left tackle that would have went 8th and a WR that would be 18th in the draft and actually have a chance of contending the next year. There would be no hold outs. The players would know their market value but maybe more importantly not be forced into bad organizations that will hurt there careers. The biggest argument against this I find unconvincing which is that the rich will get richer. But, that just does not make sense as a team will only keep one and maybe 2 high priced QB’s on the roster and what stud QB coming out will want to wait behind 2 other players just to get a shot.

  • dr

    The lingering question behind this whole debate is why haven’t the contracts become more results oriented instead of prospect oriented. In other words, you give a WR a good base salary and then give him bonuses for catches, YAC, blocks on TD runs, etc. Instead, these guys are given huge contracts and then have no real incentive to perform until their contract is up for renegotiation.

  • stan

    The draft is (and has been ruled to be) a blatant antitrust violation. Only the alternative universe that labor law has become allows two groups of people to sell out the rights of a third group for their own gain so blatantly.

    As for the draft, it seems that the rookie pay structure has gotten to the point where a lot of teams aren’t willing to part with much value in order to move up in the draft — it costs too much to sign them. As the perceived value of draft picks drops, will we eventually see a team decide to give up an early first round pick rather than incur the salary? That is, they don’t want to pick and can’t find anyone to take it because the quality of the players available doesn’t seem to warrant the cost of their salary in that slot.

  • Dave M

    “Was Crabtree required to participate in the draft?”

    Yes, he couldn’t just refuse and become a free agent. And if even seniors could, he came out early.

  • MichaelC

    Why not just let the player “pass” on a drafting team if they do not want to play there. Then they can negotiate with the highest bidder. If it meant the loss of the draft pick by the selecting team, they would be well-advised to arrive at a satisfactory contract offer before even drafting the player. Of course, this is all dependent upon a salary cap which would limit the Jerry Jones effect.

  • Vik

    Interesting thoughts, Chris.

    How would the auction system or the Madden-type system factor in trades? For example, if a player (Anquan Boldin, for example) were to be traded during the season, what sort of compensation would the Cardinals get?

  • Benjee

    Though I’m no fan of the draft system, an “auction” would stir some fairly controversial images. Imagine hundreds of mostly black college football players standing on a stage, getting bid on by 30 mostly white general managers. What sordid aspect of our nation’s history would that scene remind you of?

  • Kyle

    The draft is as mush of a parity tool as anything else. It is arranged to give the weaker teams a chance to accumulate premium talent.

    Under an auction system, why would any marquee player opt to goto Detroit or Oakland if the numbers were anywhere close.

    I believe parity is a good thing for the NFL, and the draft (like the salary cap) is a tool to preserve parity.

  • John

    Jim’s analysis is spot-on. At a more general level, if an auction-style system were used in the presence of a salary cap, truly bad teams would be much better able to build for the future because they could concentrate on stockpiling lower-valued depth rather than being cap-crushed by signing an overpriced/unproven QB, LT, or DE.

    The risk-reward structure under the present system is really, really out of whack. See contract implications of Russell, JaMarcus.