Josh Norman doesn’t like the newest version of the NFL’s defensive rules. This is not particularly unusual—most rules passed in the past decade have low poll numbers among defensive players. “You’re handcuffing the defense to this whole offense propaganda,” he said.
Norman also doesn’t like how much money quarterbacks make. He thinks these two things combine to impact the NFL’s labor market and the growing inequality within it. “I would address the quarterback situation because they get gosh darn too much money,” he said.
I asked the Washington Redskins cornerback the question I’ve asked other NFL stars throughout training camp: What would you do if you were commissioner? He, like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, thinks players should have more say in rules that owners pass. He has a number of suggestions for how the league could compete internationally and how they should deal with the current political climate, but unprompted, he first brought up a point about the pay disparity that he sees in the NFL and the factors that are making it worse. Norman is speaking from a position of power—in terms of both his contract and his ability to play good defense in an era when rules make that harder than ever. He’s one of the league’s highest-paid defenders and quarterbacks threw his way once every 10 snaps in coverage—the best rate in the league.
“They took the money away from the rookies, which is a good thing, but the teams now are putting it all into the quarterbacks,” Norman said, referencing the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that capped rookie wages. “It’s ridiculous—everyone on defense is on the $12-15 [million per year] level. You see some wide receivers getting into the $18 [million] level, maybe some D-linemen, but golly, the gap is ridiculous—someone is going to get $30 million. Then there will be a $40 million guy. Come on. No one is even close on defense. The next defensive guy will be $19 million.”
He proposed what he described as “essentially a cap” on passer salaries. And Norman has actually underestimated the growth in quarterback salaries: San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, who has made seven career starts, will make $42 million in cash this season.
Among active players, the top six highest career earners are quarterbacks, as are 12 of the top 15. While passing is more important than ever in the NFL, only one cornerback, Joe Haden, and one safety, Eric Berry, are among the top 30 in career earnings among active players. Matt Schaub, a fine passer for a brief period early this decade, has made more career money than any active player in the secondary. Norman has made $40 million so far in his career—about $300,000 less than Brock Osweiler, who’s started 25 games in six years. In 2016, Norman signed a five-year deal worth $50 million guaranteed, making him the highest-paid cornerback in football. He came to Washington from Carolina, where he starred during the team’s 2015 Super Bowl run. The Panthers renounced the franchise tag placed on him and allowed him to hit free agency—a rarity among NFL stars.
Norman’s larger point is that it is significantly harder to play defense now than at any era in NFL history, so defenders should be paid a bigger percentage of the revenue pie, not less.
“They’ve designed the game to where the offensive guys are stars and the defensive guys, it’s like, ‘Whatever, we’ll take your money if you do something,’” Norman said, referencing the increasing opportunities of fines for penalties that he thinks unfairly target defensive players. “I guarantee their pockets aren’t touched like ours are.” According to Spotrac, Norman has been fined $179,004 since November 2014.
In the spring, NFL owners voted to impose a broad rule banning the lowering of the helmet to initiate contact. This, Norman said, makes it near impossible to play defense without getting fined regularly: “You have to become a spirit animal and, at the point of contact, literally disappear.” If it were up to him, he’d simply police “malicious” hits with the helmet and go back to the rules of the 2000s, when fewer illegal-contact penalties were called. This, he said, would help alleviate some of the issues defensive players face, which, in turn, would help all positions.
“You’ve got to spread the wealth. Running backs are grinders. I’d definitely give more money to defensive backs because now you’ve got to be super skillful—if you’re shadowing someone and you can’t touch them after 5 yards, how the hell can you [be good] at defense?” Norman said. “Offensive linemen are banging into each other on every play. I would just say, when you look around at it, spread the wealth.”
Aside from a cap on quarterback salaries (not dissimilar from an NBA max salary, mind you), Norman would borrow from the NBA and MLB and try to guarantee as many contracts as he could. He said that he’d start immediately by guaranteeing the top five players on a team. “You look at all your positions, you rank them—those guys get guarantees,” Norman said. Then, he said, that would eventually trickle down to lesser players’ contracts. “I’m sure [the money] is out there. Do they want to let us know about it?”
Norman’s frame of reference for other sports is soccer. He is friends with Los Angeles Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The guy adores soccer, so I asked him how the NFL could compete for the same global audience as the world’s game. I threw out the idea of having every team play one game overseas. He agreed and went so far as to suggest putting a team in Europe permanently. But Norman said that if you truly want a global game, simply playing games is not the answer.
“You have to have people there who actually play it,” Norman said. “You have to build a base to where United States football is the big leagues. Then you get the people who are really good overseas to come to the United States. It’s just like how the top leagues in soccer are in Europe. You go over to the Premier League, to La Liga. You are not doing anything in soccer in the United States, and football for us is like soccer for them.”
As for playing additional games in Europe, Norman thinks they should happen in more cities than just London. He named Paris’s Parc des Princes, Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu, and Manchester’s Old Trafford as potential locations. (“It’s freaking radical,” Norman said of Old Trafford.)
I also asked Norman what he would do if his job was to talk to the 32 teams about President Donald Trump. In response, he delivered a long analogy about waiting in the grass for your adversaries to move past you.
“You continue to do what you do, because guess what. You have a product, and that product is fucking banking. It’s the no. 2 product in the world outside of soccer—you cannot beat it. Those checks will keep coming regardless of what you do,” Norman said. “I wouldn’t tell them to do a fucking thing. This guy is going to be out of office in two years. I think we’ll be OK. Trust me: The accounts will be fine. I wouldn’t put emphasis on it. Because the fans are going to come. It’s not like you’ve got scabs on the field like in 1987. So what if it’s a down year? Who gives a fuck? Next year you’ll be great. It’s not going to catastrophically disappear because one guy said something.”
There are other changes Norman would make. He said he would look at discipline for player conduct on a case-by-case basis but specified he would be harsher on domestic violence issues. The current policy calls for a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second offense. “Beating a woman? That’s zero tolerance. I’d give them maybe eight, 10, 12 games first offense; second, you’re out of the league forever, and I don’t even know if I wouldn’t give that ban out for first offense,” Norman said. “There’s no coming back from that.”
Norman also said that the NFL doesn’t do enough to help the off-field causes its players are passionate about. In June, he went to a San Antonio Walmart and bought toys for children who were recently let out of immigration detention centers. He never heard from anyone at the league about his charitable efforts. “I can’t make them do anything. I can’t make them match. I can’t call them out on it—they aren’t going to do anything anyway,” Norman said. “So if I was commissioner, I’d say, ‘How can we help [the players]?’”
After saying this, Norman smiled and pointed out that he’s so pro player that the owners would probably never make him commissioner. Well, there’s always the Premier League.