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Phil Sheridan: Football superstars haven't caught up financially with other sports superstars

Last week, the Phillies committed to paying a lefthander at least $120 million to play in one-fifth of their games over the next five years.

Last week, the Phillies committed to paying a lefthander at least $120 million to play in one-fifth of their games over the next five years.

Meanwhile, another lefthander has American television networks clamoring to get him on prime time, where he has been delivering the single most important element in sports: high ratings. No matter what happens next, the lefthander named Michael Vick probably won't come close to earning what the lefthander named Cliff Lee will bank between now and 2015.

We're talking apples and oranges here, comparing baseball and football compensation. But we're still in the same produce market, and the product in question, as DeSean Jackson is quick to point out, is "entertainment."

More important, the issue is worth raising because the NFL is simultaneously crowing about its booming popularity and threatening the source of that growth - the players who blow knees and bleed and suffer concussions - with labor Armageddon.

Vick and Jackson are not just the two best players the Eagles have. They both happen to be candidates for rich new contracts. They both are profoundly affected by that looming labor crisis. Without knowing the business environment - revenue division, salary cap, franchise-tag rules - the Eagles have chosen to put off negotiations with these two key players.

So if either was to suffer a career-threatening injury during the rest of this season or the playoffs (feel free to knock on wood here), he might never get the financial reward the market dictates - because Roger Goodell and a few militant owners want to roll back the players' share of the revenue they generate.

But even if Vick and Jackson do get deals commensurate with their NFL peers, they will not make as much as players in other professional sports - even if they deliver more eyeballs per broadcast than those players do. And only a percentage of that money will be guaranteed, whereas 100 percent is guaranteed to Lee and Ryan Howard and Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

There are plenty of reasons for this. There are 53 players on an NFL roster, 25 on an MLB roster, and just 12 in the NBA (and eight of those are basically irrelevant). So there are more pie slices in football.

Then there is the history. Baseball players had Marvin Miller running their union, and he fought for and won numerous concessions from weak commissioners and disorganized owners. Football players were slow to unionize and slower to make demands from powerful commissioners representing unified owners.

There is a 20-year gap in the legal fights that brought free agency to baseball (Curt Flood) and football (Reggie White and others). Football players, with shorter careers in their physically punishing sport, have never caught up.

Finally, there is the culture of each sport. The NBA long ago acknowledged that it was all about stars. You pay Kobe and LeBron because that's who the fans come to the arena or tune in to see. Baseball, too, is so attendance-driven that players command salaries much more in line with their role in filling ballparks. (Sometimes teams are wrong about that, but it still drives the decision making to a large degree; compare the Phillies' attendance and revenues with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who got their new ballpark at the same time.)

Football? Coaches like to call it the ultimate team sport. There is a pecking order for salaries, and quarterbacks are at the top, but everyone understands the QB is relatively helpless without an offensive line or some teammates who can run and catch. Premium positions - offensive tackle, cornerback, pass-rushing ends - command premium salaries, but only within the established framework.

Here's where things break down. The NFL really is becoming a much more star-driven league than ever. The idea that fans root for the franchise as players come and go remains true, but there is no denying the impact Vick and Tom Brady and (for varying reasons) Brett Favre have on the TV ratings. There's a reason that Sunday's game between the Eagles and the dead-on-arrival Vikings was moved into prime time, and it isn't the logos on the helmets.

It is Michael Vick. After his epic performances at Washington and at the New Meadowlands, millions of people will tune in on the day after Christmas to see what he does next.

In music and movies and television, as well as in baseball and basketball and even hockey, the needle-movers get rewarded accordingly. In the NFL, you get paid based on draft position, on-field position, salary-cap management, risk of injury, and, for now, posturing by greedy owners.

Vick became one of the few players to rise above the system during his first incarnation as an NFL superstar. He is about to do so again, but he must wait until the league decides it wants to keep raking in billions. Even then, thanks to Lee and Howard, he'll likely be the third-highest-paid lefthander in the city.