Mike Tomlin, Player Fines, and What the NFL Really Cares About

On this morning of December 4th, the ESPN ScoreCenter iPad application announced that the NFL had fined Mike Tomlin $100 thousand1 for his little sojourn onto the field and into the path of Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones’ kickoff return on Sunday Night Football. What a perfect lead for looking at player fines!

The good people at Spotrac.com2 indicate that Mike Tomlin makes $5.75 million a year. It is troublesome when people manipulate numbers like that ($100 followed by $5.75) so to be clear: the NFL fined him $0.1 million, and he makes $5.75 million. It is a fraction, though not a very pretty one, and works out to 1.74% of his annual salary. $100 thousand is the biggest in-game fine in league history, with only Bill Belichick’s $500 thousand for Spygate outstripping it among all fines.3 The language in the NFL’s press release officially stated that Tomlin’s actions were “like, a pretty not-so-good thing to do”. But exactly how bad? Well…

Most NFL fines target players. Through Week 12, there have been 163 fines (including 16 in the preseason), ranging from uniform violations to physically engaging an official. The fines total $2.37 million, averaging $0.015 million ($14,543). The most common fines have been for roughing the passer– 34 fines, $0.534 million total, $0.016 million average ($15,691)– and hitting a defenseless player– 21 fines, $0.421 million total, $0.02 million average ($20,068). Tomlin was hit with a 1.74% salary reduction this season. How does that stack up with the players?

The average NFL salary is $2.016 million ($2,015,942), with a median of $0.753 million ($753,229). The average fine ($14,543) is 0.72% of the average salary, and 1.93% of the median salary.4 For half of all players, the average fine is a harsher punishment than Tomlin’s 1.74% loss. But are those the guys getting fined? Most fines occur on the defensive side, specifically at defensive end and safety (the guys hitting those quarterbacks and defenseless receivers). Defensive ends average $2.577 million a year, with a median of $0.933 million, and safeties average $1.634 million a year, with a median of $0.715 million.

The average roughing the passer fine costs the average defensive end 0.61% of his yearly take, and the median defensive end 1.68%. The average hitting a defenseless player fine costs the average safety 1.23% of his salary, and the median safety 2.81%. Starters make more than backups, are on the field more, and presumably receive most of the fines, but not all of them. Another thing to consider is that fines escalate for repeated offenses. Still, while in terms of absolute value, Tomlin’s fine is the biggest in the league this season, in relative value it is certainly not. For example, though released a few weeks ago, Ahmad Black, safety of the Buccaneers, was earning an average of $556,685 and was fined $21,000 in Week 2 for hitting a defenseless player, a 3.77% pay cut. To my knowledge, the ESPN ScoreCenter iPad application has never informed anyone where Ahmad Black’s losses rank in league history.

Lastly, the NFL does not announce their fines, nor disclose them without being asked (making Spotrac.com’s work even more impressive). At the beginning of each season they issue guidelines concerning fines, and there are minimums for certain offenses, but basically an NFL fine is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Lots of economists have studied lots of things about risk analysis, decision-making, etc, but in terms of policy it basically comes down to two things: you can increase enforcement, or increase the fine, and your action depends on whether you want the behavior to stop, or whether you want to collect money.

Given the relative secrecy, and that we keep hearing more and more about how officials are cracking down on dangerous hits, and that all suspect hits are reviewed after the game anyway to bring enforcement to 100%, and that the league has not significantly altered fine values, and that 134 of the 163 (82.2%) player fines this season have been for illegal hitting or tackling, and that we all have no trouble believing that the league does not give a damn about player safety anyway, I think it is clear what policy the NFL has chosen. Making sure every illegal hit receives a fine brings in money; making fines so expensive that the players actually change their behavior does not. If the NFL really wanted these hits to stop, they would raise the price.


  1. Apparently the NFL may also take a draft pick or two away from the Steelers, but has not made a decision yet. 
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all information concerning fines and salaries in this article comes from the good people at Sportrac.com. They are pretty cool. 
  3. Apparently head coaches Wade Wilson and Mike Tice also received fines of $100 thousand. So we have either got alliterative initials or guys named Mike T. COINCIDENCE? YOU DECIDE
  4. How dies that compare to us mortals? Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the average household income is $72,555, the median $52,762. That is an average and median of $84,422 and $64,293 among family households, respectively, with a non-family household averaging $45,893 with a median of $31,749. A speeding ticket varies, but a seemingly reasonable estimate is $150. That is 0.28% of the median household income. A first-time DUI offense similarly varies, but a seemingly reasonable estimate is $10,000, accounting for all fines, necessary classes, legal fees, increasing auto insurance rates, etc. That is 18.95% of the median household income. 
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