Can the Hollywood Strikes Provide a Blueprint for NFL Running Backs?

Can the Hollywood Strikes Provide a Blueprint for NFL Running Backs?
What can NFL running backs like Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley learn from the Hollywood strike?  (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
What can NFL running backs like Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley learn from the Hollywood strike? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Famous actors and actresses picketing have dominated Hollywood headlines in recent weeks after the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in a workers’ strike.

Their cause is simple: fair compensation for their work, namely in relation to waste (or royalties) for content that is streamed online more than when it was originally released.

Not apples to apples, but what the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are fighting is similar to the problem running backs face in the NFL. Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard are just the latest examples of players who haven’t had the ability to fight for higher wages throughout their careers and are therefore at the mercy of an undervalued market.

But while actors and writers have a clear path to solving their problem, NFL running backs and the NFL Players Association do not.

There have been many ideas for how to solve the NFL running backs compensation problem. Some suggested creating a pool of money reserved for players who outlast their contract. Others appealed to the change or elimination of franchise brand. Another radical idea is to make running backs ineligible for the NFL Draft and immediate free agents.

All of these options are hypothetical and theoretical, though, and not even possible until collective bargaining agreement negotiations begin in seven years or so, with the new CBA set to expire at the end of the 2030 season. Meanwhile, NFLPA President JC Tretter Mentioned players can fake injuriesbut even that is a slippery slope.

There’s really only one option that can create any change within the year and hopefully result in Barkley, Jacobs, Pollard and others gaining bigger deals: running backs will have to resist playing the same way that actors and writers have refused to work on television shows and movies.

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It’s what Le’Veon Bell did for the entire 2018 season and what Melvin Gordon did for 64 days in 2019. Neither ended up with the money they wanted, and both admitted regret over their decisions. Barkley even mentioned the possibility of sitting out the games before the overtime deadline passed, but noted that, “Anyone who knows me knows it’s not something I want to do.”

But it is, unfortunately, the best way to try to solve the problem.

“I don’t think anything is being done until the players are educated on all the issues and have proper representation of the collective bargaining agreement negotiations,” 18-year-old NFL agent Blake Baratz told Yahoo Sports. “And finally, I don’t think anything is being done until the players are willing to not step on the field.”

More than just one or two guys would have to skip games too. As Bell tweeted on Wednesday, the running back contract situation is similar to the 1998 Disney animated film “A Bug’s Life” where a colony of ants gathers to fight the overwhelming locusts (bear with us, here) who demand part of their resources in exchange for letting them continue to live peacefully. Like the ants in the movie, NFL players far outnumber NFL owners, and so a united front can create change in the league.

A full-fledged union strike happened once in the NFL in 1987, but another seems unlikely. This he can happen, however. And just look at Hollywood right now as a result of its work stoppage: Production on several high-profile television shows and movies has ended, and studio executives expect the strike to continue for months. This means that the industry will remain paralyzed while unions and their bosses negotiate money and power.

NFL players who sit out would take away the league’s product and give them – i.e. running backs – an advantage at a negotiating table that they desperately lack.

Why NFL Running Backs Need Leverage

The running back market has been stagnant since 2011 and has actually declined since 2020 because there is almost no way for a player to defend more money. It’s because? Well, there is no reason for a team to give players a bigger contract in the current CBA. The rookie salary scale, fifth-year option for first-round draft picks, and franchise branding give teams up to seven years of contractual control after a player is drafted, which leaves little opportunity for a player to fight for a better salary.

“Your leverage is your ability to move forward and get someone else to pay you [in free agency]”, said Baratz. “Owners are smart. They’ve made it impossible for players to take advantage if they don’t want to pay them.”

This is where, ideally, the NFLPA would come in to fix things. That’s how actors and writers came together in a joint strike against the studios – both unions agreed to refuse to work until their demands were met.

But that didn’t happen for NFL players during the CBA’s latest trades in 2020. And there’s no telling if that will happen in 2030 either. And when the movements happened, nothing really changed. The 2011 lockout ended. Bell and Gordon returned to the league, but failed to get the contracts they wanted. The games continued and the NFL moved on. And that’s because owners understand that there are more players willing to stay for less than to defend more.

“You can say you don’t want a franchise brand and fight for it all you want, but what’s the NFL’s reason to compromise on anything?” Baratz said. “They don’t have to compromise on anything because they know that half the players in the league live from check to check and a year out of their careers is like dog years and they don’t have the ability to do that. So they know they’re going to give up at some point.”

RBs need to unite

Solidarity came quickly in the Hollywood strikes, as wealthy and well-known celebrities joined lower-paid, lower-paid workers in picketing. This has happened to running backs as well, as top players have taken to Twitter to publicize the salary discrepancies. They also formed a group text chat to discuss the matter and spoke on a Zoom call hosted by Austin Ekeler of the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night.

The main difference, though, is that the running backs are fighting for the players chasing the biggest contracts, while the WGA and SAG-AFTRA offenses are fighting for everyone, but especially those who earn less. So when actors like Jason Sudeikis and Susan Sarandon refuse to work, their presence validates the requests of their underpaid or underpaid colleagues, even if they personally aren’t as affected by the results.

Running backs, meanwhile, will likely fight for higher salaries for more prominent players like Barkley, Jacobs and Pollard. They want to see a true open market, not belittled by the franchise brand. It’s a noble cause, but lesser-known players might be less likely to join them, if only because they’d be fighting for something they might never have anyway.

Austin Ekeler reportedly hosted a Zoom call for NFL running backs to discuss the issues they face.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Austin Ekeler reportedly hosted a Zoom call for NFL running backs to discuss the issues they face. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The biggest problem faced by any possible player scam

While WGA and SAG-AFTRA offenses have literal lists of demands, there is still no cohesive goal for running backs. Part of that is down to the union, while the other part is down to individual player decisions.

The goal cannot just be “more money” because that idea will be manipulated into a negative narrative. Bell and Gordon were vilified for their decisions not to play. Players who ask for more money are often seen as the bad guys because their motives seem selfish juxtaposed with the reality of their million dollar paychecks.

The difference between Barkley or Jacobs making record money versus accepting a market-level contract is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They’ve already earned generational wealth for their families as first-round picks, and that won’t change whether they accept a four-year, $64 million deal (Christian McCaffrey deal) or a three-year, $36 million deal (Nick Chubb deal).

Good players like Pollard or Ekeler – both late-rounders or undrafted players – would be the biggest beneficiaries here. But this is an even smaller group.

So perhaps it should be framed under “More Secured Money”. But these types of deals usually only affect the best players. Only nine of the 73 running backs who signed a free agent deal or contract extension in the past two years were guaranteed at least $5 million. And there’s already an NFLPA investigation into possible collusion by the owners to not deliver fully guaranteed deals to quarterbacks, so why would they give in to that for the running backs?

The real goal should be to get rid of the mechanisms that lock running backs into this depressed market: the rookie pay scale, the fifth-year option for first-round picks, and the franchise brand. Eliminating at least one of these tools that teams use to control player contracts creates more leverage, which invites better deals and, eventually, more money.

But again, none of this can really change for several years. But perhaps a little resistance will grease the wheels of this idea that has become a little more popular in recent weeks.

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