The New Orleans Saints inked tight end Jimmy Graham to a four-year, $40 million deal ($21m guaranteed) yesterday. It’s the largest ever given to a tight end, surpassing the deal former Iowa Hawkeye Dallas Clark signed with the Colts in 2008.
I’ve never really liked Graham, but he deserved to get paid. In the past three years, no one has caught more TDs than his 36. In addition, he’s averaged 90 receptions and 1,169 yards per year over that span. But the signing, and its preceding ordeal, begs the question: why does the position someone plays matter when negotiating a contract? Despite the fact that Graham puts up numbers that exceed the output of almost every wide receiver in the league, why does he get paid less simply because he’s a tight end? Currently, seven receivers are slotted to make as much or more this season in average salary. That list includes dominating players like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald, but also Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, and Dwayne Bowe. In neither pro basketball nor pro baseball is it the case that player is ineligible for more money because of his position. I’m sure someone much better versed in the business of the NFL than I could come up with explanations for why this exists, but this sounds like one of those times where the myriad, logical-in-a-vacuum justifications obscure the bigger picture, which is this: Jimmy Graham is one of the top five ballcatchers in the NFL, and he should be eligible to be paid as such. Even more broadly, players should get paid according to what a team is willing to pay them based on their ability to win games, draw fans, and make the team money. Whatever position they may happen to play should have nothing to do with that calculus.
It’s essential to note that rigid, positional distinctions are only relevant by rule to salary negotiations with franchise-tagged players (such as Graham), but the cultural distinctions exist just as well. Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez has written on the subject, making a similar point.
It’s hard to get too worked up over a guy who’s “only” making $10 million a year, but NFL players face very real financial and physical issues after retirement. The stories about head injuries are only going to get worse. Worries of declining youth participation in football are not unfounded, President Obama even made that point. It might be wise for the league to step up the way it cares for its players and make a clear statement to any future employees that they will be dealt with reasonably. It would also be the right thing to do.