The NFL is the only major American sports league that doesn’t fully guarantee their contracts. As a result, the amount of guaranteed money in a contract is everything. After all, the risk of injury is higher, players’ careers are generally shorter, so every player wants to maximize exactly how much they will be guaranteed to receive.
So, while Antonio Brown has been all over the news for his behavior, something beyond that caught my attention. The Raiders had voided his guaranteed money for “conduct detrimental to the team.” In a league where owners are constantly looking for ways to avoid paying money, this still seems like a step too far; it is an entirely discretionary way to void guaranteed money in a contract. There are famous examples in which this discretionary option makes sense, namely Aaron Hernandez, who had his guaranteed money voided by the Patriots after he was arrested for homicide, but generally this puts the power squarely in the hands of the organization. Is there a way to make a distinction in contracts for when someone commits a horrendous felony versus when someone is suspended for getting into an argument with a coach? It seems obvious that there should be, but organizations are content to keep it as vague as possible to continue to maintain the already incomparably high level of power they have over their athletes’ contracts.
In fact, history shows that owners and their organizations have become even more brazen in their attempts to control “guaranteed” money. Former Colts’ running back Trent Richardson had his guaranteed money voided by the Colts in 2015 when he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Richardson had missed a team flight and practice because his girlfriend was in the hospital with pregnancy complications. The Colts claimed that they had suspended him because he had not informed them in a timely manner. This suspension was sufficient to void his guaranteed money and even after Richardson filed a grievance, the settlement he was given only resulted in $561,893, or about 18% of his $3.184 million guaranteed contract.
This trend is especially troubling considering that these provisions are being inserted into rookie contracts, who generally have extremely low bargaining power. In Myles Garrett’s rookie contract, there is a provision that says his guaranteed money can be voided if he “takes any action that materially undermines the public's respect for, or is materially critical of, Club, Player's teammates or Club's ownership, coaches, management, operations or policies.”This is intentionally vague language that can cover an enormously large range of behavior, including relatively benign acts like criticizing play calls in a press conference.
Last year, Roquan Smith, while negotiating his rookie contract with the Chicago Bears, wanted a provision written in that promised his guaranteed money would be not be voidable if he was suspended under a confusing helmet contact rule. Smith ended up having to hold out in order to obtain this provision, which illustrated the organization’s unwillingness to cede any power even when it came to a hypothetical scenario which was incredibly unlikely to ever occur.
While Smith eventually did come to a compromise with the Bears, it should have been an unnecessary endeavor. Voiding guaranteed money should be an absolute last resort and one that is incredibly difficult to trigger, but instead it’s written into the contracts via provisions that provide the complete opposite. The NFL Players Association, who have apparently begun looking into these issues, should be working harder to ensure that owners and organizations do not have this unilateral power to void guaranteed money. As guaranteed money is the only part of their contract that NFL players are theoretically promised, there should be more oversight over what exactly can take that contractual right away and the provisions that aim to do so should be heavily scrutinized and perhaps even eliminated in favor of more precise language.
 Brown: 'No way' he plays after losing guarantees, ESPN.com (Sept. 7, 2019), https://perma.cc/8N82-ZQCY
 Grievance Filed Over Trent Richardson’s Salary, Indystar.com (March 13, 2015), https://perma.cc/RS96-W5D4
 Why NFL Rookie Holdouts Could Happen, and Who They Could Be, ESPN.com (Jul. 20, 2017), https://perma.cc/P5XN-EYBY
 Roquan Smith’s Contract Dispute Shows How NFL Teams Squeeze Rookies, TheRinger.com (Jul. 31, 2018), https://perma.cc/A2FF-YGH2