Is 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.