Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas wrote a deeply personal essay today for The Players' Tribune and it should make every single owner, front office executive, and league official feel like garbage. Thomas, the last remaining member of Seattle's vaunted Legion of Boom, is 29 years old and in the last year of his contract. He is holding out because he wants an extension. He wants security. And he wants to finish his career as a Seahawk. Barring that, he is pleading, pleading with Seattle to trade him.
Thomas wrote the essay because the same thing that always happens when an NFL player holds out is happening to him. He's being labelled as selfish and greedy, and accused of putting the team in a bad position. The Seahawks—a franchise which Paul Allen bought for $194 million and which Forbes valued at $2.4 billion last year—have been put in a bad position because a guy who risks his health every weekend and is one of the best players at his position is greedy for wanting a commitment from the organization that approaches his own commitment to the team. The NFL is the only environment in which that preceding sentence makes any sense, and it is embarrassing that it does.
The NFL operates under a salary cap and non-guaranteed contracts. Even clauses that are referred to as "guarantees" are not actually guaranteed. We've all gotten used to the annual free agency ritual where we marvel at absurd contracts both in terms of length and dollar amounts that in reality are little more than one-year deals that may continue past that initial year at the team's discretion. If a player has a down year, gets hurt, or because he looked at the strength and conditioning coach sideway, the team can cut him and that player gets nothing. Maybe he even gets labelled soft, or a bad seed for good measure on his way out.
Thomas knows this, and does not want that to be the way things go down for him. He bends over backwards to say how much he wants to play for Seattle, how much he wants to work his ass off for the Seahawks, but it's got to be a two-way street. So he explains in crystal clear simplicity that he wants to be paid his worth and he wants the team to reciprocate the loyalty he's shown by extending his contract and giving him the security he deserves.
The past few weeks, I’ve had a bunch of guys reach out to me to offer their support, and to just talk about their experiences of being in my situation. One of them was Eric Weddle. He was dominant for the Chargers for nine seasons — and then everything went south. When he asked the team to make a commitment, they treated him like he was being selfish. All he wanted was the opportunity to finish his career where he started it. After a decade of grind, he just wanted some security. How is that selfish?
I don’t know, man. I just don’t.
I’m really grateful to the players and fans who have offered their support — because without that, this process, it leaves you feeling alone. Honestly, I think one of the reasons that teams treat players like they do is because they can get away with it. They’re good at placing blame on the player who’s sitting out, by making the entire process become very public and very negative toward their reputation. It’s like — I have no way of even knowing what they might be telling the press or my teammates about me. And for someone like myself, who doesn’t usually talk … that makes you feel kind of helpless.
This is dead-on. Teams absolutely treat players like fungible assets because they can, and everyone—including fans and media—is complicit. When you start talking about your favorite team like you are the GM and you need to cut cap space, you are accepting and perpetuating a fiction that running a football team is too expensive for a billionaire. You are criticizing the player(s) you watch every weekend, in furtherance of a dude's bank account which does not need your assistance.
When media members parrot team talking points like Mike Sando, ESPN.com up there did, it funnels down to fans and it creates this environment where Earl Thomas has to write something to point out that, actually, I am risking my body, voluntarily, for this team and it would be super cool if the team could acknowledge that and not make me feel like I'm a piece of shit for wanting to be adequately compensated for it.
One of the premier players in the league laid himself bare to say that not only do NFL teams and owners fully dehumanize their employees, but they make the players look like the bad guys for pointing it out. If anyone sitting in an owner's box had an ounce of shame, they'd feel humiliated. But I guarantee you they don't.