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Making the Cut

Each sport, from football to golf, has its rules and regulations for going from amateur to pro, and success is far from guaranteed.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Liev Schreiber, November/December 2013

So you want to know how someone gets to play a pro sport? It’s like that old joke. You know the one: a wandering tourist asks a New Yorker, “Please—how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” Not missing a beat, the New Yorker replies “Practice, practice, practice.”

To leap from college to the lofty pedestal of a first-round NFL draft pick, where taut muscles are rewarded with eight-figure contracts, it helps to have two things. One part of the formula includes some natural endowment—what people piously refer to as God-given talent. Next, competitiveness and irrepressible perseverance had better be fueling that talent. Some research shows that the top performers in any field engage in “directed practice,” the kind of activity that falls outside of one’s comfort zone and attacks weaknesses instead of repeating one’s strengths. How many are willing to pay such a price in athletics—or in any other endeavor? Success is complex, so uncertainty rules the roost.

For owners, the process of drafting players—and assigning dollar amounts for physical prowess—is fraught with risks. Even though the 2011–2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) eliminated the massive $50 million-plus NFL rookie contracts of past years, money spent on the wrong player is money wasted and can still send a franchise reeling for years. How will athletes perform? It’s a crapshoot. Take character. “Teams worry about players who are immature and wind up doing stupid things that embarrass themselves and their teams. Like Aaron Hernandez just did with the Patriots,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and professor at Smith College. “Also, you don’t know a great deal about the player’s skills based on what he does in college.”

The same risks apply to other sports, especially when players are eligible for the draft at an early age. Rookie NBA contracts are limited by a CBA that protects owners, yet predicting hardwood success remains dicey since players only need to be out of high school for one year to be eligible. Emerging mostly from Canada’s junior leagues, hockey hopefuls must be 18 to play in the NHL, and the league’s new draft format gives all 14 non-playoff teams a chance at the first overall pick, compared to only the worst five teams in the past. The minimum age for full membership on the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour is 18, though exemptions have been made for younger players.

If drafting football and basketball talent is risky, then baseball could be described as a crapshoot in the dark. Major League Baseball allows players to be drafted right out of high school, unless they attend college. Once in college, they must remain through their junior year, or until they turn 21. Players can make the jump from high school to the pros, but hardly anyone does. Dave Winfield never played a game in the minor leagues. He debuted with the Padres in June 1973, several months after being selected fourth overall in the draft. But he was 21 years old, having already attended the University of Minnesota.

Players drafted from high school generally serve an apprenticeship, proving their mettle in the minors or in college before playing in the majors. “We won’t know until five years from now how good this [2013] draft is,” says Boston general manger Ben Cherington. Only a small percentage of drafted players will ever see time in the major leagues.

Athletic success, no matter the sport, is subject to a raging sea of probabilities. Football hopefuls seeking the attention of one of 32 pro teams compete at NFL Scouting Combines each spring, where they are measured in physical tests that include their time in a 40-yard dash, how many reps of a 225-pound bench press they can do before quitting in exhaustion, and various tests of agility and jumping. They are also scored on the Wonderlic—a 50-question, 12-minute cognitive exam first used in 1936. And before all this there’s that little matter of eight years of practices and games through college and high school. Thousands undertake this grueling apprenticeship in order to emerge as a body-for-hire in that upscale flesh auction known as the NFL Draft.

On draft day, a player’s economic fortunes, at least in the short term, are tied to their rank. The salary cap for each team in 2013 is $123 million. Due to the CBA, staying under that cap is easier. Prices for the top first-round picks were lowered significantly in order to protect the finances of individual teams. The shift away from massive rookie contracts helped veterans earn more. Now the league’s salary cap and wealth is spread about more evenly.

Not before. In 2010, University of Oklahoma quarterback and No. 1 pick Sam Bradford signed a six-year, $78 million deal ($50 million guaranteed) with St. Louis. In 2007, Oakland signed quarterback JaMarcus Russell to a six-year $68 million contract, with $32 million guaranteed. Less than three years later—with a 7-18 record as a starter—he was out of the game. He is now broke, overweight and fighting addiction. The NFL was then a caveat emptor league. That old saw “Buyer Beware” applied. If the player went bust, teams nosedived, sometimes for years.

Not anymore. In 2013, the first pick was Eric Fisher, the 6'7" offensive tackle from Central Michigan University. He earned a four-year deal worth $22.2 million. “The guaranteed amount is usually only the signing bonus plus the first year,” says Professor Zimbalist. For Fisher, that means a first-year salary of $4 million and a signing bonus of $14.5 million. “Sometimes players have more bargaining leverage and they can get some more money guaranteed,” Zimbalist adds. Owners no longer need to empty the vault on a player who may fail. “There’s less risk now,” says Patrick Rishe, founder of SportsImpacts. 

The draft exhibits a kind of cap within the cap. Draft slots pay out a fixed amount. After the Chiefs snatched Fisher, the Jaguars chose Luke Joeckel second for a deal worth $21.2 million. With the money owners save on early picks, more can be spent on players chosen later. Even picks 30 through 32, the last three in the first round, should earn about $7 million over four years. Baltimore made Florida safety Matt Elam the 32nd and last pick of the first round. It was a win-win: Elam got $6.8 million, and the team locked up value for a relatively low price. The first pick of the second round, and 33rd overall, Jonathan Cyprien is guaranteed $5.5 million from the Jaguars.

Not all players sign deals worth millions. The minimum salary in the NFL is $405,000 for first-year players. That minimum increases to $480,000 in year two and swells to a minimum of $940,000 for players with 10 or more years. Ravens’ fullback Vonta Leach has nine accrued seasons, and his minimum salary for 2013 is slated at $840,000. Bonuses and incentives attached to his deal will likely bring Baltimore’s offer to about $1.3 million.

Contract length is also set. As spelled out in Article VII, Section Three of the 301-page NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, “Every rookie shall have a fixed and unalterable contract length: (i) four years for Rookies selected in the first round of the Draft, with a Club option for a fifth year (ii) four years for Rookies selected in rounds two through seven of the Draft; and (iii) three years for Undrafted Rookies.”

But this contract length is guaranteed for the team, not the player. If a player is cut, he gets the signing bonus and some portion of his first year’s salary, the portion depending on when he was cut.

This agreement between the NFL and the Players Association determines what will be spent and earned. But despite a team’s arduous preparation for the draft—watching films, reviewing data, studying a player’s proneness to injury, examining various character issues—things do fall apart.

Consider: the highway is littered with draft busts. One famous cautionary tale in draft history involved two college stalwarts. The Colts had the first pick in the 1998 draft, and San Diego had the third. Both teams were torn between two big quarterbacks with strong arms: Peyton Manning from Tennessee and Ryan Leaf from Washington State. San Diego needed a quarterback, having finished last in touchdowns in 1997. With millions of dollars at stake, San Diego sought wisdom on the mental makeup of the two, turning to Jonathan Niednagel, a researcher at the Brain Type Institute in Missouri, who maintains there are 16 distinct brain types. He believes this accounts for why some people are better suited to be CEOs or quarterbacks than others. He warned the Chargers that Leaf couldn’t handle the pressures of leading a rebuilding team. Manning, Niednagel said, would be a star. The Chargers nonetheless chose Leaf.

To ensure they got Leaf, San Diego traded with Arizona to move up to pick second. They gave up their third pick, future first-round and second-round picks, and three-time Pro-Bowler Eric Metcalf. The Chargers inked Leaf to a four-year deal worth $31.25 million, including a guaranteed $11.25 million signing bonus. The Chargers released him after three abysmal seasons.

Three other teams believed in Leaf, the last being Seattle, who signed him for one year. But he never played a single game with Seattle and retired at age 26, appearing in only 25 games over his entire career. In March 2012 he was arrested on burglary, theft and drug charges and, days later, on criminal possession of dangerous drugs. He is now serving a seven-year sentence in Montana State Prison. Leaf is an object lesson for the perils of the old way, when teams lost kings’ ransoms on untested players.    

Every era includes pleasant surprises. In 1994, the league celebrated its 75th anniversary by picking an all-time team and naming Baltimore quarterback Johnny Unitas as its greatest player ever. “Johnny U’s” start was inauspicious, however. After Unitas graduated Louisville, Pittsburgh selected him in the ninth round, 102nd overall, in the 1955 draft. Pittsburgh intended on keeping three of four quarterbacks, but Steeler’s coach Walt Kiesling decided that Unitas wasn’t smart enough to quarterback an NFL team and cut him. So he was out of the pros, playing on weekends for the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game. The Colts signed him the following year.

Tom Brady is the new Unitas. Despite a stellar career at Michigan, Brady was overlooked by every team in the 2000 Draft—six times. New England chose him 199th overall. One wonders about the reliability of exhaustive scouting reports when everyone passed on a quarterback now considered by many to be the greatest ever. “Brady was thought to be at the low end when it came to physical ability,” explains Mike Johnson, quarterback coach with San Diego in 2000. “But he was high on the
intangible side.”

Indeed, the 6'5" Brady posted a combine time of just 5.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash but scored an above average 33 on the Wonderlic Test. Though the Patriots are lauded for building a winning team through the draft, their late selection of Brady was lucky. Brady’s boyhood idol and Notre Dame standout Joe Montana wasn’t selected until the third round and 84th overall by San Francisco in the 1979 Draft. Deacon Jones, who died last June and was arguably the greatest defensive end ever, was overlooked until the 14th round—and 186th pick overall—before the Rams grabbed him in 1961.

Basketball has seen its flops, too, notably in 2003 when Detroit used its second draft pick to select Darko Milicic instead of Carmelo Anthony, who had just led Syracuse to an NCAA title. Detroit GM Dumars chose Milicic, largely on the basis of a brilliant gym workout at John Jay College. “In that particular case you can see why, despite their better judgment, someone looks at Joe Dumars and says ‘Hey, this guy knows basketball, and if he sees something, maybe he has an eye that the others of us just don’t have,’ ”  says Rishe. “It doesn’t seem like the most rational way to make a decision; I think a consensus of opinions is required before you make these large investments.”

ABC broadcaster and former coach Jeff Van Gundy thinks people have criticized Detroit in retrospect, but might have chosen Milicic if they “were in Dumars’ position.” Then he deconstructs the choice. “I think those draft workouts can influence you far too much. You have all these games people have competed in their whole lives. There should be more game watching than workout watching. In workouts, you can either get very high on a guy or very down on a guy.” The Pistons won the NBA championship a year later, not because of Milicic (a four-minute a game sub), but lost to San Antonio in the 2005 Finals in seven games. A 21-point-per-game scorer like Anthony could have helped in three of those games when Detroit couldn’t break 80 points.

To avoid such legendary embarrassments in the draft, you play the percentages, as the Red Sox have done for a decade now. Since 2002, the Sox have drafted lefty Jon Lester (second round, 2002), Dustin Pedroia (second round, 65th pick overall, 2004), Clay Buchholz (first round, 2005), Jacoby Ellsbury (23rd pick, 2005). “That’s a lot of good names,” says Amile Sawdaye, director of amateur scouting for the Red Sox. “It starts with good scouts and good prospects. Our mantra is to make sure we take the best available player. Out of the four major sports, baseball players are probably the least ready for the major leagues. These guys are still really far away, and you do yourself a disservice if you don’t do it that way. Position doesn’t matter: you draft the best whether he’s an infielder or outfielder, pitcher or reliever.”

Last spring Boston chose lefty hurler Trey Ball seventh overall (their highest draft pick in 20 years). He dominated with a 6-0 record, 0.76 ERA, and struck out two batters per inning in his senior year in high school. He reported to the Gulf Coast League Red Sox in Fort Meyers. When will he be ready for the majors? “It’s hard to tell,” Sawdaye says. “He hasn’t thrown a professional pitch. We’re very conservative with our players, especially with our pitchers their first year out. The main reason is we want to get him professionalized—get him into a five-day routine, make sure his shoulder strength is up. As great as they are in high school, it’s a completely different ballgame when they get into the minor leagues. Their next full season they will hit the ground running, and you probably get a better sense of how they are developing.”

Forecasting who will impact a major league club is a difficult matter. Since Kansas City chose Arizona State’s center-fielder Rick Monday with the first pick of the inaugural draft in 1965, there have been fine and awful drafts. In 1966 the Mets wasted their first pick on lefty catcher Steve Chilcut rather than Reggie Jackson. Chilcut never played a game; Jackson hit 563 home runs and played for five World Series winners. Los Angeles center-field wunderkind Steve Trout was passed over by 24 squads in the 2009 draft before the Angels nabbed him. Five teams passed on Derek Jeter before New York picked him sixth in 1992.

For golfers, college might be the best route to turning pro. Playing successfully in state, regional and junior events is a means to earning a college scholarship. College players get practice time with their team, weight training and high level competition. Phil Mickelson (Arizona State) and Tiger Woods (Stanford, two years) honed their skills at college before turning pro.
Without college, the pressure rests on a player to pay his way from tournament to tournament. To earn a tour card—which allows a player to enter any of the PGA Tour’s official events—a player must rank in the top 125 players, ranked by tournament winnings. Choosing this pay-to-play route means it will cost you more than $100,000 to compete for a year on the PGA Tour.

Regardless of the sport, one study of expert performers reveals a timeless element of success in all endeavors: perseverance. Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice shows that the crème de la crème in any field take extra steps to succeed. In his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, author Geoff Colvin applies Ericsson’s insight to the work habits of the 49ers’ Jerry Rice, by consensus the greatest to ever play wide receiver.

Rice was drafted just 16th overall in 1985. He attended Mississippi Valley State, hardly a football power. Insiders swore that he was the best because he worked the hardest. Oddly, very little of his off-season work was spent running patterns or catching balls. Instead he dedicated mornings to cardiovascular work, running a hilly five-mile trail. He ran five 40-meter wind sprints. The afternoon included strenuous weight training. Players around the league learned of these workouts and joined him. Many got sick and quit before the day was over.

Rice designed practices to work on specific needs. Trail running helped him to change directions and run his legendary precise routes. Lifting added strength, giving him the power to wrest the ball from defenders. Practicing alone wasn’t fun—lifting weights to the point of muscle failure and running to the point of exhaustion are hardly enjoyable. But Rice’s approach to practice connects with top performers in other fields.

A study of human performance was conducted at the Music Academy of West Berlin to learn why some violinists fare better than others. The postsecondary school turns out many musicians who go on to careers with symphony orchestras or as soloists. Professors nominated the best violinists—those most likely to enjoy careers as international soloists—and divided them into groups of good, better and best. All had started playing by the age of eight and decided to become musicians by the age of 15. Each group did lessons, practice and classes for about 51 hours a week. What distinguished them was a willingness to practice. Alone. They all knew it, but they didn’t all do it, for practicing by oneself is less fun than playing in groups. The two top groups practiced alone 24 hours per week on average, compared to the good violinists who practiced nine hours. As boxing manager Cus D’Amato once told his protégé and future heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, “Discipline is doing what you hate to do and doing it like you love it.”

This kind of focused practice involved going beyond one’s comfort zone. Whether you are violinist Itzhak Pearlman or Michael Jordan, chess master Bobby Fischer or Wayne Gretzky, the story plays the same. A grand master at 16, Fischer had been studying tirelessly since he was seven. Gretzky objected to those who wrote about his “hockey instincts.” “It’s all practice,” he once explained. “Nine out of 10 people think it’s instinct, and it isn’t. Nobody would ever say that a doctor had learned his profession by instinct; yet in my own way I’ve put in almost as much time studying hockey as a medical student puts in studying medicine.”

Listen to Van Gundy describe Jordan, drafted third in 1984. “Jordan is the greatest player in the last 25 years,” Van Gundy says. “It’s a rare combination of off-the-charts competitiveness and off-the-charts athleticism.” Van Gundy counts Jordan as one of two “can’t miss” NBA draftees in his lifetime. The other was Maryland’s Len Bias, drafted second by Boston in 1986. Bias didn’t fall short on the talent meter. He died from a cardiac arrhythmia caused by a cocaine overdose two days after he was drafted.

“Organizations must draft according to their true beliefs,” Van Gundy says. “What do you think wins NBA games? Do you put a premium on basketball intelligence, do you put a premium on basketball toughness? How do you view skill versus raw athleticism? The more you can narrow down exactly what you believe in, then you have a better chance of getting that. You’ve reduced your chance for catastrophic error. But it’s very difficult to do. The best teams get the draft right.”
“Getting it right” also means they make sound decisions with money.

Salary caps are designed to limit what teams can spend on player contracts, which helps to maintain competitive balance. The NBA has a “soft” salary cap, which allows teams to sign players that exceed the cap. The NBA has set a team cap for the 2013–2014 season at $58.5 million. Consider the New York Knicks: with only eight players signed on the roster heading into the season, the Knicks payroll has already climbed to $82.1 million, nearly $24 million over the cap. They have tied up more than $58.2 million on just three players: Amare Stoudamire ($21.7 million), Carmelo Anthony ($21.5 million), and Tyson Chandler ($14.1 milllion). Miami pays less for LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The cost for the “New York Three” will rise to $62.5 million for the 2014–2015 season.


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