The question was simple. If you were made NFL commissioner right now, what would you do?
“I don’t think it’s just one thing,” said Aaron Rodgers, perhaps the game’s most talented player. “There’s a lot of things that need to be dealt with or could be dealt with.”
The 34-year-old superstar has led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl title and has won a league MVP. He has the highest career passer rating by a full five points over anyone else in league history. But he’s also one of the most thoughtful people in the league, which is why I approached him with this idea: Tell me what you’d do to fix the sport.
Football, of course, is at a crossroads and may be permanently stuck there—ratings have dipped, public perception is faltering, youth participation is down, and the NFL cannot get out of its own way politically. However, it is still the country’s most popular sport by a wide margin, still wildly profitable, and still a magnet for television viewership. NFL playoff or regular-season game ratings trounce the NBA’s and MLB’s. The NFL draft destroys the Daytona 500 and the Stanley Cup final. The game does not suffer a popularity problem relative to any other sport or really any other interest on the planet. The game suffers instead from a perception problem, much of it self-inflicted.
The first thing Rodgers would want to address is “owners and lawyers” passing rules in the offseason without player involvement: “The owners shouldn’t be able to pass rules without ratifying it through the players.” This, he said, includes rules about the offseason structure and limits on practice time that directly affect players. The league’s policy on player protests during the national anthem “definitely falls into that category. Especially for something like that—you need collaboration with the [NFL] Players Association.”
So, let’s start there.
Rodgers is frustrated by the inconsistency of what happens within a stadium during the national anthem at an NFL game, and by how attention has been taken away from what the protests actually are about. As an example, he cited an owner (San Francisco’s Jed York) who discussed halting concessions during the anthem and said that particular notion is “spot on.”
“If you’re going to take the focus off of what the protest was really about—it was never about the anthem, it was never about the troops, it was about social equality and racial injustice—then make it all about the anthem,” he said. “Everybody in the stadium stands and does the exact same thing. You have people in the concession, people in the bathroom; you’ve got cameramen on their knee watching. You can’t have it one way or another.”
“You have to remember where everything started. I’m one of the older players; we never came out for the anthem back in the day. We were in the locker room; in my first three, four, five years, we only came out a couple of times. We’d be in the locker room, we’d come out, intros, and then the game. Then the DOD [Department of Defense] paid some money for demonstrations and flyovers and whatnot and it became a different policy. Again, the messaging has been changed. If the owners see it as all about the flag and the anthem, everybody should be held to the same standard.”
It has been nearly two years since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not stand for the national anthem, the first in a series of player protests that continued into last season while Kaepernick remained unsigned. In May, owners approved a policy (reportedly without a formal vote) in which all players on a sideline had to stand or stay in the locker room; failure to do so could result in a fine or, in some extreme cases, suspension.
Rodgers does not have a blanket idea in mind for an anthem-related policy, saying he simply would ask for the Players Association’s input. The league, for its part, is apparently doing that now, months after the policy was enacted.
We then talked about the wider perception of the league. I mentioned that one of the things that helps build interest in other sports is increased player movement and making the offseason an event. The NFL has no such drama in its offseason; elite players rarely reach the open market or switch teams. When Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James switch teams, as both did this summer, they can dominate the news cycle for weeks at a time. Rodgers said there should be an overhaul of nearly the entire NFL contract system.
“I think I would not allow the franchise tags,” he said. “Because I think that gives the team a lot of power over your future, and they can tag you a couple of times. That, obviously, restricts player movement.”
The NFL’s franchise tag, introduced in 1993, keeps a player on his team for one year (up to three times) after his contract has expired by paying him, in the first year, at least the average of the top five salaries at his position. The move can be beneficial for players—Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell will earn $14.5 million this year, making him the highest-paid running back this season, but Bell can’t switch teams and has been unable to snag a long-term contract while playing under the tag. Rodgers’s plan to remove it would not necessarily be an obvious win for the players; he said it could benefit the teams.
“I think if you didn’t have it, it would encourage teams to get deals done earlier and in the long run it actually might save them money,” he said. “Because you’re doing a guy’s deal a year before he’s ready to play, especially young guys. Maybe they get him for cheap and, if he has a huge season his last year, cheaper than they would have gotten him after that season, if you sign him early.”
In addition to killing the franchise tag, Rodgers has another big contract idea: borrowing liberally from the NBA salary cap. The NFL’s hard salary cap, which was introduced at the time of the franchise tag, is a sacred cow for ownership. The NFL thinks the hard cap creates parity. For Rodgers, it’s something to remove.
“We have sort of a tough situation,” he said. “I think one thing you could definitely look at that would influence the way contracts are done is a hard cap versus a non-hard cap—like the NBA, where there’s a cap, then there’s luxury tax.”
Rodgers, who invested with the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this year, believes that free-spending teams should be able to go above the cap—with a penalty: “I would allow teams to go over the cap knowing if they do, since there’s not a hard cap, they are going to be faced with some luxury tax issues and they’d change their strategy. It’s not like we’re hurting—just like the NBA, we’re not hurting for revenue. We’re doing excellent in the NFL and the NBA is doing fantastic as well.”
Rodgers has two seasons left on his contract, and he’s widely expected to become one of the highest-paid players in league history when he signs a new pact. If he were to hit the open market, he would almost certainly command more than Kirk Cousins’s fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Vikings, which was one of the most lucrative contracts in quarterback history.
What also interests Rodgers are the different types of exceptions the NBA offers to teams near or over the salary cap who still want to pay players large salaries. “I think there’s a lot of things with NBA contracts—specific types of contracts with the midlevel contracts, the veteran-minimum contracts,” he said. “I think those are interesting ideas that would help our players have some guarantees and some security in some spots.”
The NBA’s midlevel exception pays players a set amount, more than $8 million at the moment, and is allowed once a year per team. Teams can offer more than one of the veteran’s minimums that he references—and they can exist outside of a salary cap with a number based on a player’s experience. There are also Bird rights, which allow a player who has been with a team for at least three seasons to re-sign outside of the salary cap.
The league’s collective bargaining agreement runs through 2020, and it’s unclear what the sticking points will be and whether players will fight for a soft cap. But Rodgers is clear that something should be done to increase player involvement in decisions at owners meetings. “I don’t know why they don’t want to [talk to players]. I understand it’s their game—they own it—but you want your players to buy into what you’re doing,” he said. “I think it would be healthy conversation to bring some players into this, whether it’s stuff like the anthem or stuff like specific rule changes.”
Now, about those rule changes.
“Cut the preseason to a maximum of three games and probably cut the offseason down for veterans,” Rodgers said.
He’s skeptical of the new kickoff rule, which owners passed in May (at the same meetings that birthed the new national anthem policy). Rodgers doesn’t think the new policy, which bans running head starts before the kick, will make it any less likely that players will collide. He thinks it will make players more likely to return the ball on a kickoff since the kicking team will be farther away from the ball when the returner catches it. With fewer touchbacks, there would be even more contact between players.
He thinks concussion safety has “gotten a lot better” with spotters on the sideline monitoring for head injuries. “I don’t know much more you can do on that except fining teams who don’t adhere to the protocol,” he said.
At the time of our discussion, Rodgers found himself fascinated by the MLS All-Star Game between the MLS All-Stars and Italian giants Juventus. “They did PKs at the end,” he said. “They played Juventus. I thought that was a great way to make it interesting. I was thinking about how that would transfer over to the NFL, because the last Pro Bowl I played in was not very competitive. It has since picked up a little bit, but I don’t really know what you can do. If you put it in the middle of the season, put it as a bye week, how many guys would actually want to go to it at that point? At the end of the season, you’re not trying to get hurt, but I don’t know what you can do with that.”
Rodgers thinks a lot about the rules. He really dislikes the college targeting rule. He appreciates the spirit of it—protecting players in compromising positions—but thinks it’s too punitive for a call that is “98 percent subjective.”
“A safety going to make a big hit and picking a target in the midsection—the [receiver] catches the ball and lowers his head—it goes from a legal hit to more of an almost helmet-to-helmet or maybe the shoulder to the helmet. You can get kicked out of the game for that,” he said. “I think it’s a harsh penalty and I understand the intent of the rule, that’s good. The enforcement lacks a little bit of oversight.”
We talked more about NFL personalities and how few of them can break into the mainstream the same way that basketball or soccer stars can. As one of the more famous people on the planet, he, of course, is one of the lone exceptions. In ESPN’s 2018 “World Fame 100,” which measures worldwide fame, the top NFL player, Tom Brady, checks in at no. 38, while Rodgers is no. 59. When it comes to increasing interest in individuals, he thinks allowing more touchdown celebrations was a step in the right direction.
“There’s something to be said for Barry Sanders, who gave the ball back to the ref, but that’s his personality,” Rodgers said. “There shouldn’t be a mandate on that, I don’t think. People love Barry, love that about him. People who love T.O. or Randy Moss or Deion Sanders or Andre Rison or anybody that’s ever played here—Donald Driver, James Jones—you’ve got to respect celebrations. You love them, look forward to them, you have to appreciate that. Let guys be guys.”
He also thinks teams should do more to highlight the causes players support off the field: “That would help to change some of the issues.” Rodgers said that more people should look at the percentages of NFL players arrested and see that there isn’t an epidemic of crime among NFL players: “Compare that per capita for the population, obviously our numbers are a lot lower. But it’s the summertime, it’s slow, and there’s not a whole lot going on; that’s obviously big news. I wish that we could continue to highlight the things guys were doing with their own causes.”
OK, anything else?
My guess is there was plenty more. Owners could stand to listen to Aaron Rodgers.