A realistic, historical perspective on the NFL and player salaries.
$17,500 – the salary of a South East Conference head football coach in 1961. $50,000 – the highest salary ever earned by Jim Brown, the greatest running back the game of pro football has ever known.
There was a time when even major university cheerleaders had a squad of only ten members and they purchased their own skirts. That one uniform would have to last all four years. A pro football staff of seven coaches was the average in the early ’50’s.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? Today, as the salaries of college coaches soar into the stratosphere and fledgling players demand and receive a signing bonus. It’s all hard to remember. The current headlines about pro athletes would have us believe that they are all millionaires, living large.
When professional football began in the 1920’s it was a world of shoestring budgets. Teams played an average of six games a season with players returning to their day jobs on Monday morning. By the mid 1960’s it was still necessary for even members of a championship team to have a real job in the off season.
Take the 1964 pre-Super Bowl Cleveland Browns. Hall of Fame defensive end Willie Davis taught mechanical drawing. Jim Houston, the 1960 first round draft pick sold insurance. Guard Chuck Noll, who would become a Hall of Farmer for his coaching success in Pittsburgh, was a salesman for Trojan Freight Lines. Lou ‘The Toe’ Groza was also in the insurance business. John Wooten taught junior high school and even the legendary Jim Brown was a marketing representative for Pepsi.
In 1892, the first paid player, William ‘Pudge’ Hoffelfingef was paid $500 cash for his efforts on the field before returning to the steel mills. The famous Jim Thorpe received $250 a game from the Canton Bulldogs. The work was regional and unstable. Players were sought who could play both sides of the ball and were expected to be big enough and strong enough for both offense and defense. Free substitution was the name of the game. Through the mid-1940’s it was a white man’s game. In 1946 – a year before Jackie Robinson made history in Major League Baseball – Los Angeles and Cleveland each signed two African American players. On the road they would be required to sleep in separate hotels from the rest of the team.
Football as a career only began to emerge in the late 1960’s. As one player of the era said, “Year round training was unheard of. We had to pay our bills and then get in shape before training camp started.” By 1969 the average salary for a ten game season, with three pre- season games and a month long training camp was $25,000. With inflation figured, that would be $156,400 by today’s figures. Ticket prices for a pro game ranged from $31-$38 with sales providing 60% of the team’s income. Average revenue per team was $3.8 million. As late as 2008, veterans of the game were often left with permanent disabilities, and lack of ability to pay their medical bills.
The decade of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s saw societal changes that would impact the sports world dramatically, with pro football behind Major League Baseball, basketball and even hockey. It began, quite naturally, with competition, as leagues like the AFL, the USFL and Canadian football demanded more collegiate players be available to play at the next level. The free substitution rule was banned in 1949 and rosters grew as more specialization was required to provide adequate offense and defense. Promising rookies began demanding more money to sign with a team and veterans grew restless with the realization that their years of service were not being fairly rewarded. At the same time, technological advances meant that television was exercising more control over sports scheduling and even time outs for advertisements. By 1984 as the legendary Jim Brown, long retired, made plans for a foot race with current stars Walter Peyton and Franco Harris, he observed that participating in the race had nothing to do with whether or not his records would be broken. It had to do with pointing out that in his day records were set in a 10 game schedule without tv timeouts.
Facts are facts. Pro football players have a short and risky career. The average player is active for 3.2 years. One half of veterans retire with permanent disability. They have a life expectancy of 55 years – far less than the average 70. It’s important to maximize earning ability during short careers.
By 1984 the New York Times wrote a story saying that the most important line in pro football had become the bottom line for owners. TV revenue was soaring and under a profit sharing agreement, teams were receiving $5 million each. Sports agents became a part of the scene, negotiating big contracts for rookies who had yet to play a pro game. Established players followed suit, with New York Jets defensive lineman Mark Gastineau negotiating an unheard of five year contract for $3.71 million, known as the “Gastineau deal,” and John Elway quarterbacking his way to a five year $5 million contract. Under the existing rules, players were under a reserve clause which saw their careers managed under one team. Under the “Rozelle Rule” changing teams meant that the new team had to pay compensation to the former team. Through 1975 only four players moved. The popularity of the sport continued to rise, fueled by TV coverage and the new practice of endorsement deals.
It was inevitable that players would want a larger share of the very profitable pie that was baking for the owners and so the NFL Players Association was formed to protect the rights and the future of the athletes and to give players some power in the system. The resulting free agency and a greater percentage of revenue were a major step forward. Collective bargaining was often tough as owners were protective of their bottom lines. There have been several major strikes. Today, the NFL has salary caps and while average salaries may sound quite high in comparison with those of the average fan, today’s experienced players know it is highly possible that they (and their comfortable salaries) will be expendable as a younger, less experienced and hungry-for-action player can come in well under that cap. This is not much different from the corporate world.
Pro football is a business. It is a business which provides entertainment for hundreds of thousands of people every autumn. It is also a business where the players – those gifted with the physical, mental and emotional skills to play at that highest level of sport- provide the services that make the TV deals and the bottom lines possible for the short amount of time that they are physically able to do the job. The majority of these players utilize the platform of their playing days not only to play the game they love, and maximize their earning ability and prepare for life after the game, but also to contribute to their communities, raise money for charities, and inspire young people.
The Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame began with players whose stories were written well before the days of signing bonuses and big bucks. Each year it continues to honor men from that early era, as well as those who were part of the evolution of the game. They did not become millionaires. They are the shoulders the modern game stands on and they are still giving their names and their time and energy to support Kentucky’s children through the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame charities. Their compensation is the light in a child’s eyes when they encounter one of the greats at the Salvation Army’s Boys and Girls Club; the awe that makes a young man dig deeper when he sees the HOF ring on the hand of one of yesterday’s heroes, or today’s champions.
So why support an event which honors “Kentucky’s football legends”? For starters, so that folks know that we in Kentucky are worth a lot more than fast horses and great bourbon. Long known for our college basketball prowess, pro football might have seemed an also – ran to the uninitiated. When you support the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame you are not only supporting Kentucky’s children, you are saying thank you in a tangible way to the men who gave all of us the greatest game and who continue to show up long after their playing days are over – gimpy knees and all.
by Kay Collier McLaughlin
click on this link to see Kay’s interview with Raymond Smith about this topic:
A realistic, historical perspective on the NFL and player salaries.