Vince McMahon’s trying to sell you something, because that’s what he does and he’s really good at it. If you want to buy it, go right ahead. The new XFL is going to sound fun if you remember how goofy the first one was, if you’re down on the NFL right now or if you’re just dying to text “He Hate Me!” to the one friend you’re sure remembers what that means.
It’s going to sound cool to the players, too, because it’s going to sound like it means jobs. And on its most basic level, if you strip away the myriad reasons to be skeptical, that’s exactly what it means. Baseball has the minor leagues, where you can go and rebuild a career. Basketball has options in Europe. You get cut from the NFL, you don’t have a place to go or a road back.
You hear every year about the 1,200 or so players who get cut from NFL rosters in the first week of September. If McMahon’s new league is viable, it obviously offers some of those players a place to go and get work. On its face, the notion of more football jobs is a positive one for football players. And some might even be able to convince themselves they’re not settling. There’s surely a representative number of NFL players with whom McMahon is more popular than Roger Goodell.
Of course, it’s not that simple, and being a fan of the WWE doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily enjoy working for McMahon. Odds are pretty good that the new XFL won’t be reporting $14 billion in revenue the first year the way its stodgy-but-still-wondrously-profitable counterpart does. Just because the XFL will offer a chance for displaced, hopeful or washed-up NFLers to continue playing football doesn’t mean all of them will find it worth their while.
See, while NFL players have it rough compared to Major League Baseball players and NBA players in terms of salaries and contract guarantees, their lives aren’t all pay cuts and torn ACLs. They practice and play (with some exceptions) on high-quality fields, enjoy top-of-the-line strength and conditioning equipment, fly on chartered planes, stay in fancy hotels. The NFL’s health and safety protocols are often the butt of jokes, but at least they exist, and are subject to enough public oversight that the league issued a cranky statement Wednesday asking everybody to lighten up about it.
Coaches and teams complain about the practice and offseason restrictions in the NFL’s current CBA, but players love the break it gives their bodies. That CBA also offers high-level health benefits for players and their families. For goodness’ sake, it requires the owners to share revenue with the players. Will the new XFL offer any of that?
The point is, while it’ll be fun for players to imagine another place to go when the NFL tells them they’re not needed anymore, there’s a pretty strong “buyer beware” element that comes with something like this. It’ll be important for players (and the NFLPA, and the media, and the public) to keep an eye on a fledgling XFL to make sure it’s not sacrificing working conditions and employee quality of life in the quest for maximum profit. Given McMahon’s closeness with the current presidential administration, and that administration’s public stance on players protesting during the national anthem, players also might want to watch out to make sure this isn’t just some thinly veiled political propaganda vehicle. During Thursday’s news conference, McMahon strongly indicated his league would require players to stand for the anthem and take a hard line against players who got in trouble off the field. If you think the NFL is too heavy-handed, don’t get duped by a league that offers the appearance of greater freedom while it aims to control you even more.
There’s going to be no shortage of players for whom this is worth a shot. Times are tough for workers in every industry these days, and many of you who are reading this have had to take a job you might not love in an effort to feed your family and/or keep chasing your dreams, or know someone else who’s had to. At its most basic level, the new XFL will offer players that. The “He Hate Me” guy DID end up playing in the NFL, after all.
But it’s not likely to offer an opportunity commensurate or even competitive with the NFL. An agent telling an NFL team his client’s other offer is an XFL one isn’t likely to get that team to budge in negotiations. Players who’ve had a taste of the NFL life probably won’t find McMahon’s grass greener — literally or figuratively.
It might be a league where you can dance, taunt and put whatever you want on the back of your jersey. It might be exciting and fun and new in many ways. And on some level, it’ll be football, which is really the only thing for which some of these guys will be looking. But the last time McMahon tried this, it didn’t last long. The odds of it being revolutionary or sustainably innovative are slim. And even if it is, it’s not likely to treat its players any better than the NFL does. If anything, it’s probably going to have to treat them worse in order to survive.