Non-Guaranteed Contracts, Guaranteed Injuries

October 5, 2015

Uncategorized

By Harman Toor – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

Football is inherently dangerous. The term contact sport doesn’t apply to football, collision sport does. While those playing football know the risks, there are certain injures and concerns that have recently garnered considerable attention. Concussions and how to combat player injuries has become a highly dividing topic. Recently, the NFL reached a settlement with more than 5,000 retired players who accused the NFL of not warning players and hiding the damages of brain injuries. This settlement, numerous medical studies and the fear of North America’s most profitable sport eventually failing have led to numerous changes in an attempt to make football safer. However, the one item that is undermining any progress made when it comes to player safety is non-guaranteed contracts.

In 2013, the NFL implemented a concussion protocol in which independent doctors and neuro-trauma specialists examined players who were believed to have suffered a concussion. This was a welcomed change from years past where team physicians would administer tests and decide whether a player was fit to return to action, having to choose between the needs of the team and the wellbeing of a player.

Takings steps to identify concussions as well as changing rules is ignoring a much larger issue; the requirement of players to play through injuries to avoid a loss of wages. Darnell Docket, former player for the Arizona Cardinals stated, “…we know if we don’t play hurt and injured, we’ll be released just the same…the NFL says it wants us to report concussions, but its actions say differently.”
Of the four major North American sports leagues, the NFL is the only one where the contracts of players are not fully guaranteed. This means that when players sign a contract they are only guaranteed a portion of their salary, and may be released without receiving the total amount they signed for. For example, Aaron Rodgers, a Super Bowl winning quarterback recently signed a contract for $110,000,000 of which $54,000,000 is guaranteed. In comparison, Wes Matthews who suffered a major ACL tear, signed a $70,000,000 deal with the National Basketball Association’s Dallas Mavericks that is completely guaranteed. Many football players know that they will not see the entirety of their contract fulfilled, thus they try to negotiate as much guaranteed money upfront as possible.

For the majority of NFL players who are not considered “franchise players”, their leverage for guaranteed money is greatly reduced. Thus, those that know that the fulfillment of their contract hinges on their ability to play are far more likely to ignore their own personal safety in the hopes of continuing to collect a paycheque. Retired linebacker Ted Johnson recalled in The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic suffering a concussion in a 2002 preseason game. In fear of losing his roster spot and non-guaranteed Johnson partook in a contact drill at practice and suffered a second concussion.

This season Kam Chancellor, starting safety for the 2014 Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks held out in the hopes of restructuring his contract. Numerous outlets have heralded him as greedy and not fulfilling his contractual obligation. However, while owners, fans and the media firmly believe a player owes loyalty to his team, due to the nature of the profession, rarely does a team show loyalty to their players. Prior to the 2015 NFL season numerous players had their team options declined, contracts restructured or were released outright by their team, never making it to the end of their contracts. This batch of players included Vince Wilfork, Andre Johnson and Troy Polamalu, all staples of their organizations.

In data released by the NFL, diagnosed brain injuries from 1996 to 2007 showed a significant decrease in the last five years of the sample. However, tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs (also known as safeties) have seen an increase in the rate of injury with defensive backs experiencing 291 documented brain injuries, more than any other position. Another study recently conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University found that 96% of former NFL players tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease. As more studies reach similar conclusions, the idea of player holding out in the hopes of securing a more lucrative contract is seen less as disloyal and more as a smart business decision, especially without the assurances of a guaranteed contract.

The NFL has made great strides in attempting to make football safe. However, taking one step forward followed by taking two steps back can only get you so far. If players were able to sign guaranteed contracts, there would be less incentive to put your current and future health in harm’s way. The move towards guaranteed contracts would not eradicate the risks associated with football but would alleviate some of the issues. If the NFL’s goal is to improve player safety, then a move towards guaranteed contracts is long overdue. If the goal of the NFL is to avoid future legal battles for putting their players at risk, this move may be the difference between leaving it all on the field or leaving it all in the courtroom.

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