Famous actors and actresses on the picket lines have dominated Hollywood headlines over the past several weeks after the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA) in a worker’s strike.
Their cause is simple: fair compensation for their work, namely regarding residuals (or royalties) for content that is streamed online more than when it was originally released.
It’s not apples-to-apples, but what the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are fighting for is similar to the issue running backs face in the NFL. Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs and Tony Pollard are only the most recent examples of players who haven't had the ability to fight for bigger salaries throughout their entire careers, and therefore are at the mercy of a depreciated market.
But while the actors and writers have a clear path toward fixing their problem, the NFL running backs and the NFL Players Association do not.
There have been plenty of ideas of how to solve the NFL’s running back compensation problem. Some suggested the creation of a pool of money reserved for players who outperform their contract. Others called for the alteration or the elimination of the franchise tag. Another radical idea is to make running backs ineligible for the NFL Draft and immediate free agents.
All 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. In the meantime, NFLPA president J.C. Tretter mentioned players could fake injuries, but even that’s a slippery slope.
There is really only one option that can create any change within the year and result in Barkley, Jacobs, Pollard and others earning bigger deals: Running backs will have to hold out from playing games in the same way actors and writers refused to work on television shows and movies.
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 desired, though, and both have since admittedregret with their decisions. Barkley even mentioned the possibility of sitting out games before the extension deadline passed, but noted that, “Anybody knows me, knows that's not something I want to do.”
But it is, unfortunately, the best way to try and attempt to solve the problem.
“I don't think anything's getting done until players are educated about all the issues and they have the proper representation of the collective bargaining agreement negotiations,” 18-year NFL agent Blake Baratz told Yahoo Sports. “And ultimately I don't think anything's getting done until 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 akin to the 1998 Disney animated movie, “A Bug’s Life,” where a colony of ants rally together to push back against the oppressive grasshoppers (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, the NFL players vastly outnumber the NFL owners, and therefore a united front could create change in the league.
A full union strike happened once in the NFL in 1987, but another seems unlikely. It can happen, though. And just look at Hollywood right now as a result of their work stoppage: Production on several high-profile television shows and movies has shut down and studio executives reportedly expect the strike to continue for months. That means the industry will remain at a standstill while the unions and their bosses haggle over money and power.
NFL players sitting out would take away the league’s product and would give them — namely, running backs — leverage at a negotiation table that they so desperately do not possess.
Why NFL running backs need leverage
The running back market has been stagnant since 2011 and actually declined since 2020 because there is almost no way a player can advocate for more money. And why? Well there’s no reason for a team to give players a bigger contract in the current CBA. The rookie wage scale, the fifth-year option for first-round picks and the franchise tag gives 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 on and have someone else pay you [in free agency],” Baratz said. “The owners are smart. They made it impossible for the players to have leverage if they don't want to pay them.”
This is where, ideally, the NFLPA would come in to fix things. It’s how the actors and writers banded together in a joint strike against the studios — the two unions agreed to refuse to work until their demands were met.
But that didn’t happen for NFL players during the last CBA negotiations in 2020. And there’s no telling if it will happen in 2030, either. And when movements did happen, nothing really changed. The 2011 lockout ended. Bell and Gordon both returned to the league but didn’t get the contracts they wanted. Games continued and the NFL moved forward. And that’s because the owners understand there are more players willing to stick around for less than stand up for more.
“You can say you don't want a franchise tag and fight for it all you want, but what's the NFL's reason for giving in on anything?” Baratz said. “They don't have to give in on anything because they know that half the players in the league are living check-to-check and a year off their career is like dog years and they don't have the ability to do it. So they know they're gonna fold at some point.”
RBs need to band together
Solidarity quickly happened in the Hollywood strikes, as wealthy and well-known celebrities joined the lower and underpaid workers on the picket lines. That’s also already happened with running backs as high-profile players took to Twitter to spread awareness about the salary discrepancies. They also reportedly formed a group text chat to discuss the issue further and reportedly spoke on a Zoom call organized by the Los Angeles Chargers’ Austin Ekeler on Saturday night.
The key difference, though, is that running backs are fighting for the players seeking the biggest contracts, whereas the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are fighting for everyone, but especially those who make the least. So when actors like Jason Sudeikis and Susan Sarandon refuse to work, their presence validates the requests of their underpaid or lower-paid peers even though they personally might not be as affected by the results.
Running backs, meanwhile, will more than likely be fighting for higher wages for the more prominent players like Barkley, Jacobs and Pollard. They want to see a true open market, not one depreciated by the franchise tag. It’s a noble cause, but lesser-known players may be less likely to join them, if only because they’d be fighting for something they may never have anyway.
The biggest problem facing any possible player strike
While the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes have literal listsof demands, there is no cohesive goal for the running backs yet. Part of that is on the union, while the other part is on individual player decisions.
The goal can’t be just “more money” because that idea will be manipulated into a negative narrative. Bell and Gordon were vilified for their decisions to not play. Players who ask for more money are, typically, seen as the bad guys because their motives appear selfish juxtaposed with the reality of their million-dollar paychecks.
The difference between Barkley or Jacobs making record-setting money versus taking a market-level contract is negligible in the grand scheme of things. They’ve already earned generational wealth for their families as first-round picks, and that won’t change if they take a four-year, $64 million contract (Christian McCaffrey’s deal) or a three-year, $36 million one (Nick Chubb’s contract).
Good players like Pollard or Ekeler — both late-round or undrafted players — would be the biggest beneficiaries here. But that’s an even smaller group.
So maybe it should be framed around “more guaranteed money.” But those types of deals also generally only affect the top players. Only nine of the 73 running backs who signed a free agent deal or contract extension over the past two years received at least $5 million guaranteed. And there is already an NFLPA investigation into potential collusion by owners to not hand out fully guaranteed deals to quarterbacks, so why would they give in to that for running backs?
The real goal should be to get rid of the mechanisms that bind running backs to that depreciated market: the rookie wage scale, the fifth-year option for first-round picks and the franchise tag. The elimination of at least one of those tools teams use to control player contracts creates more leverage, which invites better deals and, eventually, more money.
Again, though, none of that can really change for several years. But maybe a little holdout will grease the wheels of that idea that’s become a little more mainstream in the past few weeks.