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The franchise tag stands as both a tool for teams to retain top talent and a point of contention for players seeking long-term security.
The franchise tag is a mechanism that allows teams to bind a player to their roster for one additional season, preventing them from entering free agency.
It is included in the collective bargaining agreement (negotiated between the NFL Players Association and the team owners) that governs the league. It is renegotiated and renewed after an agreed upon term, and usually includes changes to rules and how revenue is split.
Indianapolis Colts Owner, Jim Irsay essentially proved it with his "there ain't shit you're going to do about it" quote:
“If I die tonight and Jonathan Taylor is out of the league, no one’s gonna miss us,” Irsay said, per The Athletic. “The league goes on. We know that. The National Football (League) rolls on. It doesn’t matter who comes and who goes, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
Team owners have the best leverage due to being billionaires and are more aligned in interests, and don't have any weak links with all being extremely financially secure, unlike many of the players whose time is always a play away from being over. A lockout, (when all operations are shut down and team facilities closed) is used as a weapon to essentially force the players' hands that can be exploited to the owners' advantage to squeeze the players into submission most of the time. Players with a next man up mentality, and a very short window are always aware of the compounding effects of lost time, and this desperation can be used against them.
It's also why for this scenario to be effective, players have to understand the long term interests at stake and the bluffs to call while preparing to indeed do just that. They'll have to prepare for a long term lockout with the only chance of succeeding being impacting the only thing that can squeeze owners, their money.
The owners and local economies who benefit from the NFL will also lose money and substantially more than athletes due to partnerships, advertising revenue, team values, sports books, and local economies that make the majority of their money from NFL games and fan activities.
The tag prevents the most elite pool of players from resetting the market while adding another year of wear and tear to their bodies, ultimately resulting in a predatory and exploitative loophole that severely impacts the value and rights of NFL players.
This practice has come under scrutiny, especially from running backs who argue that it severely hampers their earning potential and overall career prospects. By placing the franchise tag on a player, the team essentially guarantees that player's services for the upcoming season while preventing them from hitting the open market and creating a bidding war for their services.
The Running Back Conundrum
Running backs in the NFL face unique challenges. They have a shorter average career span compared to other positions, often due to the physical toll their position demands. The franchise tag restricts their ability to secure long-term deals with guaranteed money, leaving them vulnerable to injury and the risk of not landing a significant contract in the future.
Amidst the push for guaranteed contracts in the NFL, running backs who are at risk of going extinct must spearheading the challenge to the franchise tag system. Being designated with the tag significantly limits their financial security and overall earning potential and often occurs during a prime earning year. A one-year contract does not adequately compensate for the years of dedication and hard work that they put into the game or the benefits that teams obtain from their labor.
Prepare For A Lockout?
Running backs must lead, and come together to organize and advocate for changes to the franchise tag system. Currently there is no system of checks and balances when it comes to having any leverage in negotiations. Money talks, and negotiations against billionaires won't be easy, but money talks and only a lockout threatens to lose them money and applies pressure on a scale that would actually matter.
In the real world, bargaining is only as powerful as your leverage. A nice no is still a no, and a mean yes still gets you paid. One worker complaining to HR will have their concerns forwarded, but every worker walking out shuts the factory down and will have the owner holding an emergency meeting before lunch.
Running have the shortest career spans, and are now the lowest paid position in the NFL, which has a lot to do with the restrictions that are compounded by playing a prime year under the franchise tag.
It requires careful negotiation and collaboration between players, the players' union, and NFL team owners. A lockout will likely be necessary and there are complexities to consider, such as the impact on team salary caps and player movement. However, with collective action and strategic negotiation, change is possible.
One way to negotiate large salaries down is by countering it with more guaranteed money, but without the best players pushing the market forward in their prime these salaries won't actually rise for anyone but quarterbacks and NFL team owners will continue to have a vice grip on NFL player contracts.