Lamar Jackson, the quicksilver quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, is in collusion limbo. He is 26 years old. He is a former NFL Most Valuable Player. He is beloved by teammates and fans. And he is in a purgatory from which there is no easy way out. For a casual fan, this story can seem to require a degree in contract law. But here are the broad sketches: Jackson has what’s called a “non-exclusive franchise tag,” which means he is due to make $32.5 million playing for the Ravens in 2023—far below the market value for his skills. But as a free agent he is also able to court a contract from other teams. The Ravens would then have the option to match the offer. Jackson revealed earlier this week on Twitter that he requested a trade on March 2 and hoped the Ravens would accommodate him. There is one problem: Jackson has received no free-agent offers, and trade partners cannot be found.
It is gobsmacking that in a league so dependent on quarterback play, teams are not salivating at the thought of a quarterback who has won 75 percent of his games and has not even entered his prime. Even more bizarre, and there is no precedent for this in NFL history, team after team came forward immediately to say publicly that they have no interest in Jackson. The teams’ public reasons range from salary demands to Lamar’s injury history. But this seems much more like the greasy work of public relations, of trying to head off the demands of their fan base to bring in the league’s most exciting individual. For many commentators, the problem is that Jackson has been using his mother as an agent. He also asked an uncertified agent, a family friend, to reach out to teams, which is against the league’s collective bargaining agreement.
But none of this is likely why Jackson isn’t getting any offers. The real reason is likely about punishment. In a league that believes in top-down autocracy, Jackson is not playing by the owner’s rules. To NFL owners, he might as well be taking a knee during the anthem. It’s not about the politics. It’s about the political economy of a league segregated racially by those who play and those who own, as former player Michael Bennett wrote so memorably. It is a league that demands obedience, and Jackson refuses to be obedient.
Ironically, Jackson is paying the price for an owner’s disobedience: that of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. The ethically shaky billionaire blew up the quarterback market by offering morally bereft free-agent quarterback DeShaun Watson $230 million in guaranteed money. The NFL owners don’t do guaranteed contracts, and they certainly don’t want the number to be roughly $100 million more than any other deal in history. (Also, Watson played horribly last year, which only adds to the stink.) Jackson has looked at this inferior quarterback amassing a fortune and said that he should be paid as the new market dictates. This is especially the case, in Lamar’s thinking, because as top passer and record-setting runner, he basically plays two positions and has taken the hits to prove it. The owners disagree and seem to have come together to say, “Hell, no.” It reminds one of what the late Ravens franchise owner Art Modell said about his fellow ownership brethren: “They are a bunch of fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist on football.” In other words, it is rugged capitalism for Jackson and cartel communism for the billionaires in charge.
In particularly sleazy fashion, some general managers are saying anonymously to access journalists that Jackson has issues with “sleeping habits” and “diet.” This is absurd and clearly a dog whistle that—by all reputable accounts—has no basis in reality. Everyone, even detractors of his style, acknowledge that Jackson is beloved by coaches and teammates and is all about that action. But because of Cleveland and the pique of billionaires, Jackson has to pay the price.
I was asked recently at an event at the University of Texas whether I thought that racism was the reason Jackson did not even get a sniff from 31 teams—the overwhelming number of which would be improved with Jackson under center. I have no idea what lurks in the heart of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or the billionaires for whom he catches flak like a human meat shield. But I do know that the NFL network just fired a journalist uniquely unafraid to question the powers-that-be about racism in the league. That was the great Jim Trotter. They took him out, it seems transparently clear, because they don’t want these kinds of questions asked. That’s the problem with autocracies, whether in government or corporate life: They don’t allow oxygen, and it’s the rest of us—in this case, the players, media, and fans alike—who suffocate.