The Status of NFL Contracts

Football is a brutally violent sport: the average career length for a player is about 3.3 years; various season-ending injuries occur each week; and there has recently been an increasing rise in awareness around the deleterious effects thousands upon thousands of collisions have on the brain. In every single game, there is a chance--a threat, even--that it will be a players’ last. For this reason, it has become a source of great contention and frustration throughout the players’ union that not all NFL contracts are guaranteed. Looking past the complexities of the contract system, even though a player signs a contract for “$10 million,” they will not necessarily see all $10 million paid out to them, thanks to the many minute rules and stipulations that allow owners to terminate contracts for any number of reasons. What is often the number one reason that contracts are terminated without having been fully paid out? Career-threatening injuries.

Within the past decade, it has become more and more common to see NFL players hold out for a better contract. A contract holdout is a temporary absence from all team activities, by which a player lets his team know that he will not play for them if they do not pay him more money, extend his contract, or just generally bend to the player’s wishes. Obviously, not just any player can use this tactic; anyone who is a replacement-level talent will immediately be cut or traded, so coaches and ownership do not have to deal with the headache of further negotiations. These holdouts often end before the season begins, whether the team caves and pays the player more money, or the player returns to the team in reluctant acceptance. Kam Chancellor, All-Pro safety for the Seattle Seahawks and an important member of their Super Bowl winning team, was a recent high-profile holdout. During the 2015 season, his holdout lasted through the first two weeks before he eventually returned to the team with no further benefits. Chris Johnson, an All-Pro running back with the Tennessee Titans held out prior to the 2011 season, and was ultimately rewarded with a four-year deal worth about $53 million.

The holdout that captivated the NFL world this year is the story of Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ All-Pro running back. The Steelers gave Bell the franchise tag for the 2017 season, meaning he would receive approximately $12 million for a one year contract, and they planned to do it again in 2018. However, Bell refused the tag offer, insisting that he would either receive a long-term contract that promised long-term security in case of an injury, or he would not play. Both sides remained headstrong throughout the first ten weeks of the season, and with the passing of the franchise tag deadline and no deal in place, Bell became officially ineligible to return to play this season. That means that Bell forfeited the $14.5 million he would have earned from the franchise tag this year (an increase from last year due to the mechanics of the contract type). Nevertheless, at 26-years-old, Bell is still young and healthy enough to be productive, and he will be fresh next year after taking an entire season off. As one of the best running backs in the league, many teams will be sure to make him lucrative offers. Bell probably made the right decision, even if some of his teammates felt betrayed. Why should he sacrifice financial security in a sport that puts his future in jeopardy every time he steps on the field?

Three out of the four major professional sports leagues in the US offer guaranteed contracts. The outlier is the NFL. In one of the world’s most dangerous sports, it makes no sense that the players are not guaranteed their money. Each and every week, they put not only their body, but also their mind and their future,in jeopardy in order to entertain millions of fans worldwide. In a sport that is rife with injuries due to the nature of the game, these players--these employees--deserve financial security. During the next collective bargaining meeting, it is clear that the players’ union must push for guaranteed contracts. Let’s stop treating NFL players like replaceable machines that exist only for our entertainment, and start doing what is right.