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NFL looks stronger than ever despite 2014 controversy

NFL free agency kicked off Tuesday, and to quote the NFL on Instagram (FB), “That escalated quickly.”

Some of the more notable trades included Saint Louis and Philadelphia swapping quarterbacks, Darrelle Revis securing a $70 million contract to head back to New York and Ndamukong Suh setting a new record as the league’s highest-paid defensive player with a $114 million move to Miami.

“If you’re a fan, your head is swimming right now with some of the moves that have been made,” said Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at Wharton and author of the new book “Sport Matters.”

The NFL jokes about the start of 2015 free agency on its instagram account.

The first question we had for Shropshire when he sat down with us to talk player deals for the 2015 season was how much the league’s controversies in 2014 would impact contracts and the outlook for 2015. So far, Shropshire says, player behavior off the field hasn’t seemed to have a big impact on deals.

“We don’t really know the focus that has been made on those issues in terms of what they’re paid,” he said, “But in terms of players with maybe not the greatest reputations moving around, players are signing.”

One of the biggest signs of this is perhaps Ndamukong Suh’s contract. Suh has a reputation in the league for playing dirty, and him signing with Miami - a team that has just gotten over a bullying scandal - could present an optics issue. However Shropshire, who consults for the Dolphins, thinks that was probably addressed in negotiations.

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Because of the bullying case, Shropshire says, Miami knows how to deal with controversy on and off the field. “Does that mean that Suh will all of a sudden become the poster child for great behavior on the field of play? I don’t know about that, but I am confident that that was part of the conversation that took place,” he said.

It’s also worth noting that the NFL may look into how those conversations took place – reports suggested that the team and Suh agreed to a deal before free agency officially started – when teams are allowed to negotiate with potential players, but not agree to deals.

The other thing to keep in mind is that even though blockbuster contracts like Suh’s and Reevis’s sound staggering, it’s doubtful the players will see anywhere close to that amount of money. “[In] baseball and basketball, when you hear the word “guaranteed,” it generally means guaranteed,” he said. “In the NFL it’s different. You have to make the roster, you have to make the team… there are a lot of opportunities to release a player.”

The big number to watch, then, isn't a player's salary, but his signing or roster bonus. In Suh’s case, that number is $60 million – still a number that rivals starting quarterbacks. For Darrelle Revis, $39 million of his $70 million salary is guaranteed – most of it in the first two years of his contract.

As for the NFL overall – all of the noise surrounding Ray Rice and the league’s handling of domestic abuse off the field hasn’t amounted to much. “If anything, it’s the contrary,” said Shropshire. “In terms of viewership, the numbers are up. In terms of revenue, the numbers are up. In the short term there appears to be no negative impact.”

That could change decades down the road, though. “Where we have to watch… is what’s it doing to the kids, what’s it doing in terms of mothers letting their kids play?” he said.

Overall, though, Shropshire says the NFL handled the 2014 challenges like any good business – addressing them swiftly. And that response showed in the loyalty of fans, sponsors and advertisers.

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