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Episode Transcript

When I say the words “workplace environment,” where does your mind go? If you’re like most people, you might think about an environment like this:

[Sounds of office work]

Or like this:

[Sounds of retail store/restaurant]

Maybe even something like this:

[Sounds of transit station]

What you probably don’t think about when I say “workplace environment” is this:

[Sounds of N.F.L. practice]

But if you are one of the roughly 2,000 men who play in the National Football League — that’s your office.

Jalen REEVES-MAYBIN: I mean, it’s business. Like, let’s not get it wrong — it’s business.

The N.F.L. Players Association, or N.F.L.P.A., is the union that represents the players. And they recently conducted their first-ever employee survey about workplace conditions.

J.C. TRETTER: I would never have thought to ask, “Are there rats in your locker room?”

And they gave letter grades to each of the league’s 32 teams. 

Betsey STEVENSON: This is really about, “Are we giving you the inputs you need to be as productive as possible?” 

The N.F.L. is the richest and most successful sports league in history. Each team is worth at least $4 billion.

Jason KELCE: Nobody wants to be known as the cheapskate. Before, when it was rumored you were the cheapskate, it was harder to prove. Now there’s data.

And what does the “data” have to say? Among U.S. employees in general, job satisfaction is higher than it’s been in decades. How satisfied are N.F.L. players? Now, you may be saying to yourself: Who cares about the workplace environment of N.F.L. players? They make so much money, the environment shouldn’t matter. Or you may say: Pro football is so different from what I do for a living, there’s no way I’m going to learn anything worthwhile from this! Well, if we’ve done our job in making this episode, you will. At the very least, with a new N.F.L. season upon us, you’ll learn which teams got the best grades, and the worst.

Jim IVLER: I’ve never really heard of an F-minus before.

*      *      *

Imagine that you’ve just graduated from college with a degree in, say, mechanical engineering. And you know exactly what kind of company you want to work for. And let’s say there are 32 such companies within a 100-mile radius of where you want to live. So which company will you end up at? To a large degree, that is up to you. You can apply wherever you’d like, and if that company thinks you’re qualified and they make you an offer, you can decide whether to accept or reject the job. This is not how it works in professional sports.

Imagine now that instead of studying mechanical engineering, you went to college to play football. If you are good enough to play in the National Football League — or if you’re an athlete good enough to play in any of the other major American sports leagues — you don’t get to choose which team you play for. It’s the teams that choose the players, in an annual draft. Teams with the worse records the previous season typically get to pick earlier in the draft, and the best teams pick later. In the N.F.L., most rookie contracts will bind you to that team for four years. The top-ranked players may sign huge rookie contracts with millions of dollars guaranteed. But that’s just the top of the pyramid. Around 50 percent of N.F.L. players make the league minimum. This year, that’s a base salary of $750,000 for a rookie, with gradual increases for each year of service. So, yes, that’s a big paycheck compared to most first jobs. But the average N.F.L. career is barely three years long. So a lot of players are out of the league before their rookie contract expires; they’re replaced by someone even younger and cheaper. If you are good enough to stick around past that rookie contract, and if you’re lucky enough to have remained healthy — those are two big if’s — then you become what’s called an unrestricted free agent, and you can sell your services to whichever team wants you.

Finally, after four years in the N.F.L., you have achieved the workforce freedom of a newly graduated mechanical engineer! At this point, you may be in for big money — 5 or 10, even 50 million dollars a year. And how does a free agent decide which team to play for? Your agent will speak to all the interested teams, try to drive up your price, and help you sort through the offers. There’s a lot to consider: how the payout will be structured; what kind of incentives and bonus clauses you can get in the contract; even the occasional restrictive clause — like in the recent contract the Arizona Cardinals offered to re-sign their star quarterback Kyler Murray. They wanted Murray to — here, I’ll read from the contract — they wanted him to “complete at least four hours of Independent Study each week.” In other words: they wanted to make sure he’s doing his homework — studying the playbook, watching film at night, things like that. Arizona was criticized for adding this clause, and they ultimately removed it. And Murray did sign the contract, a five-year deal that could pay out more than $230 million.

When players get to choose their team, they usually go with the highest dollar offer. But there are other factors to consider: How good is the team? Most players want to play for winners. How good is the coaching staff, and how secure? If they’re in danger of getting fired, you may be too. You might consider the weather — are you a Miami guy or a Minnesota guy? And maybe you’ll also consider the workplace conditions at your new club. How good is the locker room, and the weight room? What about the food? How does the team treat your family members on game day? Those are the kind of questions most of us wouldn’t think to ask. But Joseph Carl Tretter, Jr., isn’t most people.

J.C. TRETTER: Yeah. J.C. Tretter, president of the N.F.L. Players Association. 

Stephen DUBNER: Okay, tell us where you went to college, and what you studied.

TRETTER: I went to Cornell University and studied industrial labor relations. 

DUBNER: That’s a pretty typical college and major for an N.F.L. prospect, yes?

TRETTER: Yeah, it’s not the normal pipeline to the pros. And I think leading into my election, it probably helped substantially, because there’s not many Cornell I.L.R. grads walking around the N.F.L.

The election Tretter mentioned was for the union presidency. He had a long, successful career in the N.F.L.: nine seasons, as an offensive lineman, for the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns, with around $45 million in career earnings. He retired in 2022 at age 31, and he had two years left on his term as union president.

TRETTER: And I was kind of looking for some new projects to do. So I had a ton of time on my hands. And it was like, I’m going to take a stab at this. 

“This” being the workplace survey of all current N.F.L. players, which the union had been talking about for years.

TRETTER: And then as we saw the responses start pouring in, this was kind of a proof of concept. 

DUBNER: Yeah, I was shocked at the response rate. Describe how many players got the survey and how many responded. 

TRETTER: So, we have 2,200 active players, and we had 1,300 fill out the survey, which is about 60 percent. As we saw the numbers start pouring in, it was like, “Oh man, like, we have to do something here.” It’s going to be, like, report cards. You had to ask somewhat qualitative but also quantitative questions to try to figure out how to compare these franchises. 

DUBNER: Give an example or two. 

TRETTER: You know, rate your locker room, one to five. But then also, what would you change about your locker room? What’s missing in your locker room? 

DUBNER: What would be in a five-rated locker room, and what would be in, or maybe missing from, a one-rated locker room?

TRETTER: I mean, I would never have thought to ask, “Are there rats in your locker room?” Like, are there physical rats in your locker room? That comes out in the survey, because there were. 

DUBNER: In Jacksonville, we should say — not everywhere. 

TRETTER: Right. You have to allow the players to fill you in with what’s bothering them. Like, there’s one team that doesn’t have outlets in their lockers, where they can’t charge their devices. 

DUBNER: Okay, who is that? 

TRETTER: Cincinnati.

The survey was conducted online, with guaranteed anonymity.

RETTER: In our business, you’re so on razor’s edge of being cut and losing your job, the idea that these owners actually think players can walk into their office and tell them, like, “Hey, I think you’re being cheap, and you’re not spending enough money on us,” and there wouldn’t be any retribution is a little crazy to me. There are some players that do. And a lot of it’s the star quarterbacks who are untouchable, or players that have guaranteed money and feel like they’re safe, and they can go in there and they can try to drive change for their teammates because they’re a little more protected than the average player. But that was one of the reasons about making it anonymous — it was allowing everybody to voice what they’ve seen without fear of retribution.

The survey covered eight categories. Three were about the physical facilities: the locker room, weight room, and training room — that’s where a player goes for a massage or the hot tub or to get an injury treated. There was one question about nutrition — how well does each team feed and hydrate the players? Also, travel — how comfortable are the airplane seats? How about the hotel rooms, and do you have to have a roommate? The survey also asked how well the team takes care of the players’ families during the games: is there, for instance, a place for your mom or maybe your wife and young kids to watch where they won’t get pelted by beers? And, finally, the survey asked about the training staff and the strength staff. But, interestingly, not the coaching staff.

TRETTER: I didn’t want a category that I felt could be too tracked to, like, wins and losses. I really wanted to stick to standard of care, like, hey, where do you spend most of your time? The locker room, the training room, the weight room, the cafeteria. Like, what staff is around you most of the time? Training staff, the strength staff. How do you travel? How do they treat your families? Like, those are the core issues that impact their daily life. And I didn’t want it to become like, “Hey, this is a good coach because we win a bunch of games.” That’s not telling us anything. There are some coaches that have a leadership council of older players that meet once a week, and then acts on those recommendations. And I think that’s what a good workplace looks like. That was something probably 15 years ago in the N.F.L., there wasn’t any of that. It was very much,“We’re doing this because I’m the coach, and I’m the boss, and I say we’re doing it.” And now I think more and more of the younger coaches are coming in being much more receptive to hearing feedback and acting on that feedback. 

Tretter says the players’ union had two primary goals in running the survey and giving each team letter grades. The first was to give players information that could help them decide where to work, if they ever got that choice. The second goal was to “help raise the standards across each club,” by bringing problems out into the open. That’s why the union published the results — we will put the link in our show notes, if you want to take a look — and why they graded each club in all eight categories. Because in the N.F.L., turnabout is fair play.

REEVES-MAYBIN: We’re always measured, we’re always graded. They can use letter grades, number grades — like you play 60 plays, and they’re like, “All right, you did your job on 80 percent of plays.” 

That is Jalen Reeves-Maybin; he’s a linebacker for the Detroit Lions.

REEVES-MAYBIN: We’re judged at every step. And I don’t think there’s ever really been a time where accountability has gone to the teams or the ownership of, like, “Hey, are you being excellent here? Like, where is your grade in this area?”

Reeves-Maybin is on the executive committee of the players union. He’s been in the league since 2017. He started with Detroit, then went to Houston for one season, and now he’s back in Detroit on a one-year contract, with a base salary of $1.25 million. And what does Detroit get in return for that salary?

REEVES-MAYBIN: It’s the combination of the mental aspect, where every week I have to learn a new opponent. I have to learn what they’re trying to do to attack me. But I also have this physical aspect of, I’m playing a violent game. If I’m not violent, I’m probably going to get hurt. But I can’t be scared. I can’t be scared to get hurt, because then that’s going to show in your performance. So you kinda got to have a recklessness in a sense, or just a willingness to take that pain. That combined with the physical, the conditioning, the stamina, the energy, the persistence you have to have — it’s a lot. So, I think it’s extremely hard. But I know that in all walks of life, people are working extremely hard. I have to add too just the media scrutiny, and the fact that you’re basically on public display all the time. I don’t think the average person knows how heavy that feels on your shoulders. You can basically determine a mood for a whole city or a whole state based off what you did on Sunday in a three-hour period. So, you know, there’s a lot that comes with it.

The N.F.L. is a commercial juggernaut. If you look at Variety’s list of the top 25 primetime TV broadcasts from last year, you’ll see that 22 of those 25 were N.F.L. games. The only exceptions were the Oscars, the Winter Olympics, and the college-football championship game.

REEVES-MAYBIN: I mean, there’s so much money involved.

And with so much money — the league has TV deals worth more than $100 billion over roughly a decade — Reeves-Maybin says the survey findings were pretty surprising.

REEVES-MAYBIN: Well, there was reports of teams having like a rat infestation in a locker room. There’s guys who don’t get fed after practices — like, the team was charging them for food. I know sometimes these things might seem like, “Oh, you got enough money to pay for it.” But we are operating at the highest level possible, like, they demand excellence from us. And I think that we should be demanding excellence from the teams.

J.C. Tretter was also surprised to learn that some players were being charged for food at team facilities.

TRETTER: That was one where I had to reach out to several people to make sure I was hearing it correctly, of like, “Wait, I just want to make sure like for the fourth time, is this true?” Because that is so preposterous. In a job where what you fuel your body with is so important, to almost push them out of the building, to push them to fast food, to push them to poor nutrition is such like a backwards way of looking at our industry. It was crazy.

DUBNER: And why do you think those teams do it? Is it just the way it was always done? Are they really trying to save money? 

TRETTER: I don’t know. It was one team — it was the Arizona Cardinals — who made people pay. There are three other teams that didn’t provide it. And I don’t think the cost they were charging would pay for the meals anyway. It is almost like the control factor of it, of, “Hey, just know your place.”

DUBNER: Can you talk about what you mean with that “know your place” sentiment? Because I think the public sees football players as superstars, not as employees coming into a workplace, with bosses, and needing to “know their place.”

TRETTER: Yeah, from a union perspective, we’re negotiating for the same things that any union is: better wages, better benefits, better working conditions. But there is a level of control that’s always being fought after. And the league, there is a piece of them that just wants to make sure that we know that they have control of us. From individual teams, like you said, we are just workers. And some coaches and some bosses are better at working with their employees about different changes that need to be made — whether it’s scheduling, whether it’s technique, whether it’s how they operate. And some aren’t good. I sometimes get frustrated when we’re defined too much as just players because I think it takes us away out of the real world and puts us into football world. And we are workers. And we’re fighting for the same things. And I think that’s one of our struggles as a union because of our short lifespan, where somebody comes into a union job and they can make sacrifices and bargain a certain way because they have the opportunity to be in that job for 30, 40 years — so, sacrificing for today, they’re going to see the fruits of that labor. That’s not always true for us. So the sacrifices one group makes, they’re probably never seeing the benefits of those sacrifices. But when it comes to the negotiating, there is a pie out there. And I think your job as an individual or as a union is to get the biggest share possible.

DUBNER: I have to say, you can really sound like an old-fashioned union agitator when you need to. When you look at the overall results of your survey, especially the team rankings — the teams that come in ranked high and the teams that come in ranked low — among the top-ranked teams, what do they have in common, whether it’s ownership, whether it’s an attitude?

TRETTER: The top three teams all have brand-new facilities. When we talk about facilities, I think sometimes the fans don’t understand how different franchises work. So everybody thinks of their stadium. So, like, the Rams and the Chargers were poorly ranked. And you heard a lot of questions of like, “Whoa, SoFi Stadium is brand new. They put billions of dollars into it. How is it poorly ranked?” That’s not where players spend their days. That’s where they play for one day a week. But their facilities are usually located elsewhere.

DUBNER: So some of that is just random — when the survey is done. So in ten years, those facilities will be getting a little ratty and whoever else has new facilities, they’ll probably rank a little bit higher because of that?

TRETTER: Yeah, if the teams do get new facilities, right? Like, some of these teams have had old facilities forever.

So who are the top three teams in the players’ union survey?

TRETTER: Top three teams are — Minnesota was number one, Miami was number two, and Las Vegas was number three.

The owners of the Minnesota Vikings and the Miami Dolphins both made their money in real-estate development — so it probably shouldn’t surprise us that they brought their real-estate chops to their football investments. The big surprise — to me, at least — is that some of the best teams in football rank toward the bottom. If you look at the winners of the past five Super Bowls — the New England Patriots, the L.A. Rams, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Kansas City Chiefs, who won it twice — none of them ranked higher than 24th out of 32 teams. I asked Tretter if he was surprised to see so many top-performing teams at the bottom of his list.

TRETTER: No, and that’s the thing, like, having a star quarterback like Patrick Mahomes is the ultimate deodorant. Whether it’s talent around them or facilities or coaching, he’s going to make everybody look good because he is that freaking good as a quarterback. But that doesn’t mean the offerings shouldn’t be up to snuff. It shouldn’t be, “Hey, come here to play with Patrick Mahomes and potentially win a Super Bowl, but also, like the facilities are going to be old and dilapidated, and you have to deal with that.” That shouldn’t be the tradeoff. Like, just pay for better facilities. If you’re making so much money, the idea of making it a choice of one or the other when you could just provide both doesn’t make much sense to me. 

DUBNER: What do the teams at the bottom have in common? Is it something as simple as they typically have older practice facilities?

TRETTER: We asked the players, do they think their owner is willing to invest money to make the facilities better? And I think the teams at the bottom, that number tracked being down there. You don’t have to knock down walls. But it’s: are you willing to invest the money necessary to make the changes necessary to fix the issues you have? Like, for Cincinnati, to rewire the locker room to make sure there’s outlets there is not that costly. For Washington, there was complaints that there’s poor drainage in the showers. So the guys are literally standing in the water that’s been run off from the guy next to him, who’s showering in the dirt and the blood and the sweat. Like, these aren’t knock the walls down and build a new facility. Let’s get a plumber in there and fix it. 

The Washington Commanders, with their backed-up showers, ranked dead last in the N.F.L. report card. But the trouble doesn’t end there for Washington. The team has been plagued with a variety of scandals in recent years, concerning workplace harassment and financial impropriety. The club’s owner, Dan Snyder, was wildly unpopular, even among his fellow owners, and he recently sold the team. All those problems in Washington got a lot of press — but at most clubs, routine problems don’t get much coverage. And J.C. Tretter says that when players change teams, they often don’t have much information until they show up at their new workplace.

TRETTER: And when they’re making these decisions about where they’re going to spend potentially the rest of their career, they should know what they’re getting into. I talked to a lot of guys as we did this survey. And I said, like, “Hey, your team’s one of the worst-graded teams. Did you know that before you signed?” And they’re like, “No, and I got here, and now I feel trapped. The quality of care is poor, and the facilities are poor. And I’m stuck here.”

DUBNER: So even if I’m making $8, $10, $15 million a year and the facilities are poor, it’s enough to have buyer’s remorse, you’re saying? 

TRETTER: Yeah. And again, most of our guys aren’t making that. So you start looking for differentiators. And those guys, those minimum-salary guys, are the lunch-pail, hard-hat guys of your team — the special-teams guys, the offensive linemen, the backups that make the team work. Those guys are looking at it and saying, like, “Hold on, I’m going to get the same dollar amount from every team. What are the other variables I can look at?” And before, it was, “What do I think of the area, like the city? Like, how close is it to my family?” And now, it’s like, “Hold on, I’m not going to go to a team that has weight room floors peeling up, and charges me for dinner. I’m going to go someplace else.”

So, is this N.F.L. team report card working? Coming up, we’ll hear from an agent, an economist, and, later, the people who run the teams.

*      *      *

Jim Ivler has worked for more than 25 years as an agent for N.F.L. players — although he isn’t an agent, technically.

IVLER: Technically, we are called certified contract advisors. To become an N.F.L.P.A.-certified contract adviser, you must first have some level of a graduate degree, you have to pass a written test, you have to pay your annual fee, and you have to attend an annual seminar.

DUBNER: And you also have to demonstrate a history of not embezzling money, and things like that, right? 

IVLER: Well, when you go through the registration process they’re certainly doing a background check, as they are allegedly doing background checks every year when you renew your certification. 

Ivler’s job, as the name implies, is to advise players on their contracts. For players coming into the N.F.L. from college, via the draft — remember, they don’t choose where they’ll play, and their salary is predetermined by how high they were picked in the draft.

IVLER: We’re all so accustomed to the draft, and that’s how talent is dispersed throughout the league. But when you think about it in more of a macro level, it’s a pretty incredible process. I mean, you’re told as a recent person coming out of college where you’re going to work. I know when I graduated law school, if someone had called me up and said, “You’ve just been drafted by a law firm in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and that’s where you’re going to go,” I would have said, “You want to bet?” But obviously these guys go, most of them very happily, to whatever team drafts them. The process though, really, is — we’re trying to achieve generational wealth for our clients. And I know it’s a buzzword and a cliche, but it’s really true. The goal needs to be that when the player is done playing in the N.F.L., whether they play 4 years or 14 years, that they can retire with enough money in the bank so they can do whatever it is they want to do with the rest of their life because it’s a passion, not because they need the paycheck. And so unless you’re a — I’m going to call it a top 20 or 25 pick — you’re really not getting that generational wealth from your first contract. So we’re really all in this game to help our clients achieve a second contract. And if they’re really blessed, maybe a third and a fourth contract. If you can get that bite at the apple where you’ve performed well enough, where there’s multiple teams interested in you, that’s where the leverage maybe flips and it’s on the player’s side. It doesn’t happen to a lot of guys. And I’m sure you’ve heard the average career span of an N.F.L. player is 3.3 years. 

DUBNER: And it’s probably not a total coincidence that that’s just before the unrestricted free agency kicks in.

IVLER: Do the math. If you can’t become unrestricted until 4 years and the average player is 3.3 years, that means the average player is never getting that bite at the apple.

DUBNER: Okay, let’s say you represent a player who’s just become a free agent and you do your thing, and you get offers from three teams. What are the primary factors that will go into the decision of where your client will want to go, and I especially want to know if workplace conditions are at all a major factor? 

IVLER: Certainly compensation, anybody that says that’s not number one is probably lying. Even if the player has made that sort of money over the course of his career to achieve that generational wealth, the compensation is still going to be the primary factor. And then the team itself — the talent that the player is surrounded with teammate-wise, the coaching staff, whether or not the team is anticipated to be a playoff, Super Bowl team, these are all things that I would say are a little bit more important to players than the workplace conditions. It’s something that players are talking about, but I wouldn’t put it in the top few factors of making free-agent decisions. Another thing you need to realize about unrestricted free agency, this happens really fast. Sometimes a player has to make a life-altering decision in five minutes. Because if the player is not ready to commit, that team’s going to go on to the next guy on their list at that position. And when you have to make those quick decisions, the size of the locker room is really not coming up. One of the factors that a player and agent will absolutely consider is whether or not there’s a state tax that’s levied against the player with the team that he is signing with. And eight of the 32 N.F.L. teams play in states where there is no state tax. And that could be a pretty big difference monetarily if you’re talking about zero percent taken out as opposed to 8, 9, 10, 11 percent in some of the higher states.

DUBNER: List for me the no-tax places. I guess it’s all the teams in Texas and Florida?

IVLER: The two teams in Texas, it’s the three teams in Florida, it’s Vegas, it’s Seattle, and it’s Tennessee.

DUBNER: So it sounds like you put a lot less stock into the impact of this survey than someone like J.C. Tretter. So I’m trying to get a read on how much this survey really matters in the end. What do you think? 

IVLER: I think it was a great idea for him to commission this survey and get responses from players. He should be holding teams’ feet to the fire, because I can guarantee you, there are some owners that are upset. From what I’ve read, Arthur Blank down in Atlanta was disappointed that his team ranked where it did. And these guys are competitive. Regardless of whether it’s really having an impact on free-agent decisions, it doesn’t mean that the survey’s not going to effect change in a lot of these facilities with these team owners. Because if they perceive that it could be a problem in free agency, that’s really the most important thing. 

DUBNER: So, the Washington Commanders got an F or lower — they actually got an F-minus in a few categories — in one, two, three, four of the categories. And then a couple D’s, a C, and an A-plus in strength coaches. So the players loved the strength coaches. But in terms of the things the team does otherwise: locker room, F-minus. Team travel, F-minus. Treatment of families, F. Can you talk about why those things matter so much to a player that they’re going to give their own team an F-minus?

IVLER: For sure. And I’ve never really heard of an F-minus before.

DUBNER: Me neither.

IVLER: But it is important, and certainly I think as a player ages throughout his career, it becomes more important because presumably they have a wife, they have children, and how the family is treated on game day, for instance, is a big deal. I remember about 15 years ago speaking to the front office of the Jets, and they were asking, “Well, what could we do better?” And we brought up the concept of a family room on game day. And they didn’t even understand what we were saying. And we said, “Hey, listen you have players whose wives are coming with little kids, and they’re sitting in the stands, and the beer is flowing, and there’s things that are said. The concept of having a daycare in an N.F.L. stadium not too long ago was unheard of. Now I think it’s close to half maybe have them. Same thing with a family room, where the players’ families can go and shelter from bad weather, shelter from crazed fans.

DUBNER: Are you surprised that so many — I mean, these are billion-dollar franchises, and they could pretty easily fix some of these problems, if they cared, with a little bit of money. Like, the family room is going to cost some money, plainly, but not a ton. Are you surprised that there’s this sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish approach? 

IVLER: Yes, I’m surprised. These are multi-billion-dollar organizations. Their most important asset, of course, is the talent that they’re putting out on the field. So, to read some of the things in the survey — uneven floors in the weight room where players feel afraid walking around, slippery floors in the pool area where players are falling. When you invest so much in your assets, to have a workplace injury potentially happen, it would not be a good look, and it is very surprising. But on the other hand, some of these teams are run by old-school owners. You know, you look at some of the teams that are low on the list, I don’t think it’s an accident that the owners made their money from the team. They didn’t come from a different industry. They came from where their grandfathers paid $500 and a bottle of whiskey for the team back in 1942. And they are kind of mired in old-school ways, and are maybe a little bit slow to come around. And no matter how much the front office wants to be progressive and implore them to change certain things, it still starts at the top, and the owner has final say. 

STEVENSON: One problem for family-run firms is, it can be hard to innovate. How do you think outside the box when you’ve never left the box?

That is Betsey Stevenson.

STEVENSON: I am an economist and professor at the University of Michigan. And I study labor markets.

DUBNER: Are you a football fan, Betsey? 

STEVENSON: I teach at the University of Michigan, so I have to just plead the fifth and refuse to answer this question.

DUBNER: So that’s a big fat no, plainly.

STEVENSON: Yeah, it’s really awkward.

Stevenson may not know football, but she does know labor economics.

STEVENSON: I served as the chief economist at the Department of Labor. And I served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, giving advice to President Obama.

DUBNER: Can I have an example of some labor-economics advice you may have given? 

STEVENSON: One big thing we talked a lot about was whether we should require forms of compensation outside of wages. Like, should people be required to get paid sick days? Should we require that people get paid maternity or paternity leave? What makes a good job, and what’s the role of government in shaping the conditions? 

DUBNER: So, what makes a good job? That’s an easy answer, yeah? 

STEVENSON: Yeah, it’s hard, because we all have different preferences. And I think the hope of economists, who believe in market forces, is everybody wants different things, and they’ll just be able to sort around the labor market ’til they find the thing that works for them. 

So when a company does provide what economists like Stevenson call “compensation outside of wages,” why do they provide that?

STEVENSON: Economists have come up with two buckets of reasons. So the first bucket is, the benefits might be a complement to hard work — we actually see higher productivity because it induces more effort from workers. The second bucket is that employees might value the benefits more than it costs the employer to provide those benefits. So, let’s start with the first bucket: complement to hard work. It’s why every company going back to the ’50s that has office workers has coffee in the break room, right? You got to caffeinate your workers to get them to work hard. The tech sector went a little crazy with this, like, “Hey, let’s have ping pong tables.” But it really was the same idea — well, if you’re socializing at work, you’ll have less of a reason to leave. One of the more extreme examples was, some of the tech companies started providing a benefit which is, “We will pay for you to freeze your eggs.” “Oh, no, we have these hard-working female employees wringing their hands in their early thirties, thinking they better have a baby. I know what we’ll do. We’ll pay to freeze their eggs, and then they’ll be able to keep working hard for a few more years.” 

DUBNER: Betsey, I know you took a look at the N.F.L. players survey. How do you think about their non-wage compensation in terms of this first bucket? 

STEVENSON: Yeah, it’s great because you can actually see the categories here which are clearly a complement to high productivity. Nutrition — they’re like, “What you eat is going to affect how you play. So we’re going to feed you.” The weight room: “How you train up is going to affect how you play. We’re going to give you a weight room.” This is really about, “Are we giving you the inputs you need to be as productive as possible?” When we think about things like the treatment of families — 

DUBNER: That’s bucket two, I assume?

STEVENSON: Yeah, this is something that’s going to have a cost to them. But the question is, “What’s the value to the person receiving it?” And that value might be quite high. 

TRETTER: My wife, my mom, my sister, my dad — they didn’t come to games to tailgate and booze it up and cheer for the Cleveland Browns. They came to the game to make sure I walked off the field at the end.

That, again, is J.C. Tretter, former N.F.L. player and current president of the players’ union.

TRETTER: I understand the guys on the field are making a lot of money. Even the guys making minimum salary are making a lot of money. The risk they are taking, though, is substantial. And the damage they are receiving is substantial. And parents and kids and wives and siblings are there worried about their well-being. And the idea that the guy’s out there making the owner hundreds of millions to billions of dollars for what they’re doing on the field, while taking all of the risk physically — the idea that their wife and newborn baby are sitting on the grimy floor of a public restroom breastfeeding is just preposterous to me. Eighteen of the teams offer family rooms; 14 don’t. And the teams that don’t, like where is that wife supposed to go? 

DUBNER: What’s your prediction for, let’s say, two years from now? How many of those 14 will offer it? 

TRETTER: We’ve heard from some teams being like, “Yeah, you know, we have an older stadium, there’s no room for it.” But everybody has suites. You know, like, in the end, it comes down to a choice. 

DUBNER: So how many games did your family attend when you were playing for Cleveland?

TRETTER: Yeah, they would be at almost every home game. And in the end, once I got my third contract, me and two other teammates went in on a suite. Like, we bought our own suite. We all had young kids, from two and under. And we didn’t want them out in the cold. So we said, like, “We’ll pay the money and buy a suite.”

DUBNER: How much did you have to pay? 

TRETTER: $150,000.

DUBNER: Okay, split by three players, with let’s call it eight home games a season — so a little over $6,000 a game, you’re paying, out of pocket.

TRETTER: I’ll trust your math.

STEVENSON: It looks like a lot of teams are doing a really bad job. I mean, I saw a lot of F’s.

That, again, is the economist Betsey Stevenson.

STEVENSON: Like, maybe they’re not getting the grade inflation that our university students get these days. But a lot of F’s — and I think what that says is this is a job where there’s lot of cash thrown at these players, and they don’t think about anything else. 

DUBNER: Betsey, are you surprised that firms that are paying their key employees a relatively very high salary, that at least some of them on some dimensions, are apparently so cheap when it comes to perks and benefits? 

STEVENSON: I am surprised that any team is messing up when it comes to perks and benefits that would actually increase the productivity of the players. I think that’s a clear mistake. Because those perks and benefits are probably quite cheap compared to not just pay, but compared to the benefits they yield on the playing field.

DUBNER: Like, one more victory would be worth quite a bit of money. 

STEVENSON: One more victory is worth a lot of money, right? You could probably do a full renovation of your weight room.

DUBNER: Do you think the issue here is that they’re not connecting it, necessarily, or not believing the connection to productivity? Because, otherwise, it’s hard for me to understand why they would cheap out.

STEVENSON: I’m pausing only because, like, sometimes people do stupid things, Stephen. So I think that’s one answer — is like, they’re just being dumb. Now, another answer is what’s necessary in the weight room, or the training room, or nutrition in order to get the best out of your players on the field is being given, but players are looking for little aspects of that that don’t actually have any impact on their productivity. You know, maybe they want a brighter, sunnier room. It can be hard to measure these things. Maybe if you had the brighter, sunnier room, they’d work harder in training. And if they worked harder in training, they’d do better on the playing field. So you should figure out how to make it brighter or sunnier. You know, I painted little poppies on the wall in my gym, and I swear I Peloton faster because I love my field of poppies.

DUBNER: Can I just say, if this economist thing doesn’t work out for you, maybe N.F.L. training-room decorator would be a lovely second career. 

STEVENSON: That would be fun, yeah. 

Are N.F.L. team owners and bosses really just doing stupid things? We’ll find out.

*      *      *

So, according to a recent survey conducted by the N.F.L. players union, many pro football teams are not such great places to work. We reached out to all 32 teams, asking for an interview with their owner or president. Nine never responded; 21 declined, with one communications director asking why we thought he would ever let us speak with his boss about this topic. In the end, two teams did agree to speak. Not surprisingly, they were the top two teams in the player survey.

Mark WILF: This is Mark Wilf, owner/president of the Minnesota Vikings.

DUBNER: So, Mark, congratulations on acing the N.F.L.P.A.’s report card. I’m just curious, how much did that matter to you? 

WILF: Well, it matters a lot. I mean, from day one of our ownership, 2005, it’s our highest goal to make our organization a world-class organization. And of course, that’s winning Super Bowls, which is paramount, but facilities, staff and community involvement.

DUBNER: So here’s a choice for you, Mark. You can keep an A grade, the number-one ranking on this report card for, let’s say, ten years, but not win a Super Bowl. Would that be worth it? I mean, maybe winning isn’t everything. Maybe treating people well is, in the long run, more important? 

WILF: Well, I strongly believe that culture in a building is critical, and I think it’s critical to building championships. So I want to be greedy and say we want both.

Okay, and let’s hear from the team that came in second.

Tom GARFINKEL: Tom Garfinkel, Vice Chairman, C.E.O., and President, Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium.

Garfinkel is the top lieutenant to Stephen Ross, the real-estate developer who is majority owner of the Dolphins.

GARFINKEL: Steve is very focused on being best-in-class, and being willing to invest in being best-in-class.

DUBNER: So, congratulations on doing so well on this N.F.L. team report card. What was your first response when you saw your grades? 

GARFINKEL: Well, my first reaction was, I don’t like being second. So we’re going to fix the family area. I can promise you that. We will have the best family area in football next year. 

The Dolphins got an A or A-plus in every one of the eight categories except for the treatment of families. That grade was a C-plus, with some players saying they didn’t get enough passes to the postgame area. But otherwise: great reviews. Not coincidentally, the Dolphins recently opened a new $135 million practice facility. Long before they broke ground, Garfinkel says he and Ross toured a bunch of other football facilities — including college facilities, which tend to be extra deluxe, since colleges can’t use actual money to recruit players.

GARFINKEL: One of the things that really struck us was at Clemson University, the locker room was really at the center of the facility. And from a layout standpoint, we really thought that’s the right idea. We want this to be player-centric. We want the players to be at the heart of everything we do here, and so to put the locker room at the center of the activity was really paramount. And then designing around that, literally sat down with the architect with a pen and pencil and drew out where the different functions would be adjacent to the locker room for players so that they could easily and quickly get to all the different areas that they needed to.

DUBNER: So during the course of a day, players are going from where to where to where?

GARFINKEL: So it could be the meal room, the cafeteria. It could be the team meeting rooms, which are where they spend a lot of time. There is everything from the sauna and steam room to the cold and the hot plunge, and the underwater treadmill, and then the training rooms next to that where the doctors and the therapists are, and then next to that is the weight room. 

DUBNER: Is the locker room kind of where you come in? You drop your stuff, you get ready to do your day and then are you cycling back through the locker room during the day, because, in part, that’s where your stuff is? 

GARFINKEL: Yes. I think the locker room is really home base for them. There’s an area for them to charge their phone. There’s a comfortable seat. It’s not a locker — you know, talking to Dan Marino and those guys, they literally had a nail they used to hang their helmet on. These are very bespoke, custom environments. We try to design the environment to be almost more Four Seasons-like, without the mahogany. I think you’ll find that the Dolphins logos are subtle. The only aqua you see in the locker room is the nameplate above the locker. 

DUBNER: Is that a tacit admission that people get sick of aqua? Because I would make that argument. 

GARFINKEL: I think you might get sick of whatever the color is, if it’s all you see everywhere, right?

DUBNER: So, we did a rough analysis with the N.F.L.P.A. report card, the grades versus win-loss records, basically. And it turns out there’s very little correlation. In fact, it might be a little bit negative. A lot of teams that do really well on the report card have not had great seasons lately, haven’t won a Super Bowl in a long time. Dolphins haven’t won a Super Bowl in a long time. Whereas a lot of the teams who’ve won Super Bowls lately rank really low. That surprised me. I’m curious what you make of that back-of-the-envelope correlation. 

GARFINKEL: Well, I would say, is that causation or correlation? This is the first year that survey has been conducted, to my knowledge. If you’re winning over a long period of time, maybe you don’t feel the need to put the resources in. And if you’re not winning, you feel the need to create some competitive advantage. So, you know, I’m not sure — maybe over ten years or something, that’ll play itself out. I’m not sure it’s relevant in the short term.

DUBNER: For a lot of reasons, including especially the pandemic, there’s been a realignment of the relationship between firms and their employees. The pendulum kind of swings — it’ll go really strong one side, then it’ll come back. I’m just curious what the last several years, including the pandemic, has taught you about what it means to be an employer in the modern era? 

GARFINKEL: Well, I certainly think employees are more empowered than in the past. Their voice matters more. It’s really about listening. There’s a tradition in football where a lot of things in the N.F.L. are done the same way across teams in terms of how schedules are set, how coaching is applied, how scouting processes work. And one of the things I love about Mike, even in the interview process, was he really has an innovative mind. He really wants to do things differently.

Garfinkel is talking about Mike McDaniel, the Dolphins’ head coach.

GARFINKEL: And one of those things is that players are really different today than they were even five years ago. They want to understand the “why” of things. And instead of just saying, “Shut up and get in line and do what I tell you to do,” Mike will sit down with a player and say, “Well, listen, wide receiver, here’s why I need you to block corners and safeties in the run game.” “Well, I get paid to catch touchdowns.” Okay. So then he’ll show them the film and say, “Okay, here’s a three-yard run. And where the wide receiver didn’t block the corner or safety — here’s the wide receiver blocking the corner or safety, and here’s a 35-yard explosive run. But watch what happens the next play. Now the defense moves up into the box. Now you can run past them and score a touchdown. So you see how it’s good for you.” So he explains it to them. And they’re like, “Oh, okay, coach.” You know, I was down in the weight room today. And the energy, the positive energy, the camaraderie, the excitement is palpable.

KELCE: I was at the Miami Dolphins training facilities last year, and it’s pretty state-of-the-art. 

That is Jason Kelce, a longtime member of the Philadelphia Eagles. He plays center, the anchor of the offensive line, and he’s considered one of the best players at that position in years. He’s also the brother of Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, who may wind up being the best player at his position in history. Travis and Jason make a podcast together, called New Heights, and in last year’s Super Bowl, they played against each other — the Kelce Bowl, some people called it. Travis’s Chiefs won, but Jason Kelce is the subject of a new feature-length documentary on Amazon’s Prime Video. On the new team report card issued by the N.F.L. players union, Kelce’s Eagles came out middle-of-the-pack, 14th out of 32 teams, with A’s for food and the weight room but a C-minus for the training room and a D for travel. I asked him if those grades reflected his own views.

KELCE: I thought it was spot-on. I’d be curious to see what the standard deviation on each one of these was, because when I saw the results, it was almost to the T.

DUBNER: You felt like you were looking at your answers. 

KELCE: Yeah. But I know that a lot of guys filled it out.

DUBNER: The D grade the Eagles got for team travel — would you agree with that assessment? 

KELCE: That might have been lower than what I ranked it, but I did not rank it high. If I was any higher, it was a C.

DUBNER: I’m reading here, it says only half of the players feel they have enough room to spread out. I guess that’s on the plane. You don’t have roommates in a hotel, at least, which some teams do. But you’re one of only seven teams that don’t offer first class seats to their players.

KELCE: And I did not know that before this study. When Chip Kelly was the head coach, he did allow — obviously everybody can’t sit in first class — but he did allow starters and players who are extremely large to sit in the first-class seats instead of the coaches. It’s a nice perk. Anybody who sat first-class knows that those seats are pretty nice. You know, we have a player, Jordan Mailata, who’s north of 6’6’’ and 400 pounds, almost. He’s going to struggle to fit any situation in the back of the plane. I will say, there was one point — we were coming back on a short flight, and they didn’t, like, turn the TVs on the back of the seats. And I remember just flipping out, “We’re a billion-dollar organization, and we can’t even get free movies on these flights? Like, what’s going on here, guys?” 

DUBNER: Who’d you say that to? 

KELCE: I said that to one of the stewardesses and then one of the guys that runs everything for logistics with the team, kinda came back and he’s like, “All right, we’re going to turn the TV’s on, Jason.”

DUBNER: Now, what about being charged for food in Arizona, let’s say. Did that surprise you? 

KELCE: It didn’t. That’s the way it was in Philly my first few years, in the off-season at least. We went to Arizona and we used the Arizona Cardinals’ facilities. And I can say first-hand, they are not investing in this place. The weight room had — I’m not kidding you, the mats of the weight room were like — I don’t know if they had water moisture that was getting in there, but the rubber mat that was on top of the concrete floor was like peeling up on the corners of it. You’re like walking on an uneven surface the whole time. I was like, how are people not just getting hurt in here? It was eye-openingly bad, in my opinion. 

DUBNER: What about the rats in Jacksonville? Did that surprise you? 

KELCE: Not one bit. I mean, come on, man. I’ve got in trouble for talking trash on Jacksonville one time, so I got to calm it down. But yeah, that stadium I have not been to much, and I’m very thankful of that. 

DUBNER: Do you think this report card will lead to any change? 

KELCE: I do. It’s already led to change. They installed a much larger cold pool in the actual training room. We used to have two above-ground pools out back, which I always — you know, “We’re a $1 billion organization with above-ground pools. I think we can maybe do better than this.”

DUBNER: Above-ground, outdoors? Like, in the winter?

KELCE: So they would have to shut them down in the winter, and that was a big issue with it. So they’ve already made corrections on that. I believe they’re addressing some of the family issues at games. The weight room is adding another tier — that’s going to add more footprint for more bikes and other workout equipment. I do think teams are going to respond to it. Just like players are competitive, I think owners are competitive. And I think that owners — or certainly a good portion of owners — are not going to like seeing their organization viewed in a negative light. And I think that they’re going to try and correct these things.

DUBNER: What can the rest of us learn from this process of a union representing the workers, goes in, asks everybody a lot of questions, and then produces a report, and it lands. And now we’re going to see what happens. What should we be learning from this? What would you say to a C.E.O. who might be listening to this and saying, “Holy cow, yeah, like, this is low-hanging fruit. I fix the mats in the weight room, and I don’t have Jason Kelce trashing me.” 

KELCE: That’s right. I think unequivocally that more unions should be doing this. It’s different when one person comes to you with an anecdote or a one-off as opposed to a literal survey of your entire workforce saying this is what we think of the place that you have us operate in. For C.E.O.s and owners, I think that seeing it this way gives you a much more realistic idea of what your workplace environment is. So I would want this information. And as a worker, I would want my boss to know this, but to also not be punished if I tell him to his face. So I’m a big fan of the survey. I think that it will lead to a lot of change in some of these N.F.L. organizations, especially if it’s done on an annual basis. And I see no reason why other fields or places of business would not follow suit and try to make changes as well. Nobody wants to be known as the cheapskate. I think that before, when it was rumored you were the cheapskate, it was harder to prove. Now there’s data. 

TRETTER: We want to live in a world where we’re giving out 32 A-pluses for all the teams.

That, again, is J.C. Tretter.

TRETTER: And when we went into this, year one, I told the staff when we started it, like if all that comes from this is four teams start giving dinner to those players, it’s a win.

DUBNER: Now, I’m curious to know what you’ve heard from teams about the survey. Have you heard anything directly from the teams? 

TRETTER: Yeah, we’ve heard from about 12 to 15 teams who have reached out to us just to say, like, “What can we do better? Can you give us more information? What changes would make us better?” I give credit to, like, Arthur Blank, who’s the owner for the Atlanta Falcons. There was an article written where he said he pulled his president and G.M. and head coach aside and told them, one, if this comes out again, they absolutely cannot be graded as low as they were before. And also that they need to start being more proactive. And it shouldn’t take this type of thing to create the change. Like, they should be, as leaders of the organization, be looking around corners and realizing where they’re weak and where they need to improve. I don’t know Arthur well. From people who do, it seems like it’s not just lip service, and that he’s going to act on those words.

A few months ago, the Falcons announced a $30 million upgrade to their locker room, weight room, and cafeteria — although they also said the renovations were already planned, and were not done in response to the union report card, where they came in 23rd out of 32 teams.

TRETTER: Those are the things you want to see — like, don’t get defensive about this. That’s not what we’re hoping for. We’re hoping that people see like, “Okay, this team’s providing this, this, and this. Maybe we should provide that too.” Because in the end, as adversarial as sometimes we are, the teams need the players, and the players need the franchises.

DUBNER: Do you plan to do the survey every year?

TRETTER: Yes. And year two is going to be more important than year one. Because year one, owners could claim ignorance. I think more will claim ignorance than should claim ignorance. And for some of it, I’m sure they didn’t know. Like, I don’t think many owners are hanging out in the hot tubs with the guys — and if they do, I that’s a story of itself that we should be diving into of why are they hanging out in the hot tubs with the guys. But, year two, now that this is out there, if some things aren’t changed, you can’t claim ignorance anymore.

DUBNER: Considering that an N.F.L. workplace is substantially different in many ways from a typical workplace, what’s there to be learned from this survey for workers and employers who have nothing to do with pro sports? 

TRETTER: The teams are called franchises, and I think that’s a connector outside of our industry. I think there is an expectation that everything is equal in the N.F.L. And I think everybody would think it’s equal at Starbucks and equal at Chick-fil-A and equal at McDonald’s, and if you go to a franchise, the rules and the treatment of the workers are the same. And I think we know that’s not true. And if you’re a worker, I think it would be valuable to know the treatment you will receive if you decide to work at one franchise versus another. And I also think if you’re the overall company, it would be interesting to see how your franchises — who are carrying your name and dictating your brand image — how they treat their workers and how they treat their customers, and how that varies across different franchise operators.

I went back to Tom Garfinkel, the Miami Dolphins’ C.E.O. and president, with a similar question:

DUBNER: What kind of lessons are there to be drawn from this report card for the companies that aren’t N.F.L. teams? Are there things that are applicable, or is the N.F.L. work environment just too different to be useful for comparison?

GARFINKEL: No, I think it’s definitely useful for comparison. I think it comes down to culture, values and standards, investment into your people. I’m a believer that people need to work together physically. Certain jobs, certain — you know, if you’re coding, sitting at your computer all day and that’s all you do, you could probably do that as easily from home as from an office. But most environments are still very human. They rely on human interaction and investing in those environments and investing in that organic interaction enhances creativity, it enhances productivity, it enhances — people want meaning, right? It goes back to Viktor Frankl and everything. It’s like, meaning matters. And I think what we do — it’s more than sports, it’s more than football. It’s about meaning, it’s about social interaction, and we bring people together to experience life together. It’s still better to be in a stadium when someone catches that pass in the fourth quarter to win a football game than to watch it on television by yourself at home, because you’re experiencing it with other people. And whether it’s that as a fan, or whether it’s employees interacting together in the workplace — particularly in environments like this one, and many are like this, where people work very hard, they work long hours, and you’re with your co-workers a lot, and you want it to be inspiring. You want it to inspire creativity, productivity, happiness, positivity. And I think that’s the bigger lesson in all this than anything football-related.

I have to say, when we started working on this episode about workplace conditions in the N.F.L., I never thought we’d end up at Viktor Frankl. But I’m glad we did! Frankl was an Austrian psychologist, a Holocaust survivor, best known for writing Man’s Search for Meaning. If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest you do; it will make you think, as it made Tom Garfinkel think. Thanks to him as well as all the other guests on today’s show.

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Ryan Kelley and mixed by Greg Rippin and Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Daria Klenert, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Sarah Lilley, and Zack Lapinski. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

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  • Tom Garfinkel, vice chairman, C.E.O., and president of the Miami Dolphins.
  • Jim Ivler, certified contract advisor for players in the National Football League.
  • Jason Kelce, center for the Philadelphia Eagles.
  • Jalen Reeves-Maybin, linebacker for the Detroit Lions and vice president of the National Football League Players Association.
  • Betsey Stevenson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.
  • J.C. Tretter, president of the National Football League Players Association and former offensive lineman.
  • Mark Wilf, owner and president of the Minnesota Vikings.



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