The face of a diva?

Photographer: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images Sport

Does Eli Manning Deserve 'Elite' Money?

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Some people are getting bent out of shape over reports that Eli Manning wants to be the highest-paid player in the NFL. Such demands make the New York Giants quarterback look "greedy" and "delusional," in the words of petulant Twitter users professional sports writers. There are at least two reasons why these reactions are childish and silly.

For one, Manning vehemently denies that he or his agent, Tom Condon, said anything of the sort. "The reports are all wrong," Manning said Wednesday. "You just wonder, is a guy just making something up to try to make a name for himself."

Now, the wording might be up for dispute, but NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, who made the initial report, has since clarified what he meant. Manning might not have flat-out demanded to be the top-paid player in the league, but according to Rapoport, the contract proposal Condon sent to the Giants would have had Manning surpassing Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in annual salary. "He never specifically told the Giants, 'I want to be the highest-paid player in the game,'" Rapoport said on NFL Network's "Total Access." "What I can tell you is these contract proposals that he has sent to the Giants, he has asked for Eli to be paid on a per-year basis more than Aaron Rodgers."

This small misunderstanding gives you a glimpse into how the sports media can take some liberties with framing a story and run with it. But it also gives you an idea of how some of these self-anointed experts fancy themselves the arbiters of other people's dollars. Peppered among the outrage over Manning's supposedly bombastic demand -- this is totally the face of a diva, after all -- are the highly scientific analyses of whether he actually "deserves" top dollar, based on things like quarterback rating and some nebulous sense of where he ranks among other play-callers. If all this sounds familiar, it is: It's the same, tired babbling about "elite" quarterbacks we've been hearing about Manning for years now, recycled to fit the fancies of bored football writers covering contract negotiations three weeks before the season starts.

Then there's the familiar moralizing over deserved versus undeserved contracts in a league that caps salaries and retains the right to cut a player at any time with little penalty. So once again, in no uncertain terms: A player is deserving of a contract if a team is willing to pay him. If the Giants decide that keeping Manning is worth Aaron Rodgers money or Philip Rivers guarantees, that's what he deserves to get.

Of course, ranking quarterbacks in terms of their contracts is futile because it assumes a false truth: that contract size reflects playing ability. We like to think that people -- not just athletes -- who make a lot of money earned their riches by being better at their jobs, but that's not always the case, especially in sports. Football economics aren't a meritocracy. It's not just about who performs best; it's also about who signed last. The salary cap keeps increasing, to the tune of $10 million a year, pushing contracts, especially quarterback contracts, ever northward. These days, it's usually savvier to take big guaranteed money than to take a bigger overall contract, but the net result is the same: Salaries have nowhere to go but up. Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game, who deserves the five-year, $110 million extension he signed in 2013 that makes him the highest paid player on a per-year basis. Russell Wilson and Philip Rivers deserved to capitalize on the new market rate set for quarterbacks this off-season. And Manning deserves to negotiate his extension according to what that market dictates in 2015.

Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports estimates -- judging by the recent extensions signed by Rivers, Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger -- that Manning can expect to pull in at least $21.5 million a year and $65 million guaranteed. Those who think those numbers should translate directly to production on the field will have just a year or so to complain about it, until Andrew Luck signs his next contract and sets an entirely new rate for the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net