Monday’s news that the Detroit Pistons had waived starting power forward Josh Smith was unexpected, to say the least. It was easy to question why a team – even one toiling away with a Philadelphia-esque 5-23 record – would be willing to simply cut bait on a player in only the second year of a four-year, $54 million contract. Then I saw this:
Last week, Chris Johnson finally flew to Tennessee to meet with Titans’ brass to discuss the terms of a new contract. Johnson, who has two years left on his current deal, expects to be like one of the top playmakers in NFL, seeking a contract reportedly worth $13.5 million per year. Meanwhile, the Titans are willing to make Johnson the highest paid running back in the league, offering a reported $10 million per year. However, Johnson returned to Orlando without the big-money contract he’s been seeking for more than a year. Said Johnson about Tennessee, “we are not seeing eye-to-eye right now.”
Over the past few years, Johnson has proven that he is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. In 2009, he became only the sixth man in NFL history to run for at least 2,000 yards and the first to rack up more than 2,500 total yards when including his receiving totals. He followed that performance by rushing for 1,364 yards in 2010, despite finishing the season with a bruised thigh. Despite his excellence, Johnson is heading into his fourth season and is due to make just $800,000 in base salary. Including incentives, the final two years of his deal can max out at roughly $2.7 million. Thus, Johnson initiated his holdout. The Titans have said they’re willing to negotiate with Johnson but want him to report before those discussions take place. On the flip side, Johnson has steadfastly refused to report until his contract situation is resolved.
Under the new negotiated terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and NFL Players’ Association, Johnson’s extended holdout requires a unique analysis from previous holdouts. Under the new terms of the CBA, the NFL and NFLPA imposed an August 9 deadline for players to report to training camp. Players who miss this deadline forfeit an accrued year of free agency. Additionally, for every day Johnson fails to report to training camp, he can be fined a whopping $30,000. This is more than double the fine under the previous CBA where the maximum fine for an unexcused absence from camp was $14,000. At press time, Johnson has been absent from preseason training camp for 31 days (and counting). This amounts to $930,000 worth of fines, more than a year’s pay under Johnson’s current contract, if the Titans choose to enforce the penalty.
Johnson has obviously missed the August 9 deadline and is now technically considered a third year player for free agency purposes. This new addition to the CBA was significant in curtailing holdouts, particularly for players entering the last year of their current contracts. For example, Desean Jackson chose not to report to training camp to start this preseason in protest of his current deal. However, this was a short-lived tantrum as Jackson eventually reported to camp ahead of the August 9 deadline. Since Jackson will be entering the final year of his deal, he did not want to lose the opportunity to become a free agent at the end of the year. Johnson however has two years left on his deal and appears determined to secure a long-term contract. This increases the odds of Johnson re-signing in Tennessee, as he has stated he wants to end his career as a Titan, however, with the deadline having already passed, provides little incentive for him to end his holdout early.
Further, the increased penalty for holdouts can be looked at two ways. If the Titans enforce the CBA, Johnson loses a significant amount of bargaining power, as $30,000 per day has to hit him pretty hard financially. It was under this premise that the NFL adopted these terms into the CBA in order to reduce holdouts. In fact, it seems to have been effective in most cases, particularly in ensuring that rookies report to camp in a timely fashion. Inversely, Johnson’s extended holdout serves as proof that he is extremely serious about obtaining a new contract before he steps foot onto the field for the Titans. If he receives the money he feels is due to him, the fines accrued would be little more than a drop in the hat compared to the money he would lose should he be injured while serving out his current contract. Further, Johnson has already accrued nearly $1 million in fines (again, if the Titans choose to enforce the terms of the CBA). Given the financial strain he has already chosen to incur, there is no reason to believe that he is not willing to take on additional sums.
Johnson has shown he is dead serious about holding out until he receives a new contract that compensates him accordingly. He has shown that, despite the new additions of the CBA levying serious penalties for unexcused absences from training camp, he is willing to accept the financial hardship and loss of accrued benefits in his fight for what he feels is justly deserves. Given what he has already given up and the risk of even more losses should he be injured, it would be unsurprising for Johnson’s holdout to continue into the season unless the two parties are willing to seriously negotiate within the next two weeks.
Is Commissioner Roger Goodell willing to suspend a player for offenses that occurred during the lockout, which began March 10? This is one of the many legal controversies that have cropped up since the NFL and NFL Players’ Association came to terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this month.
Kenny Britt has had a slew of run-ins with the law in his short NFL career, including a January 2010 arrest for failing to pay outstanding traffic warrants, a February 2011 hearing on a misdemeanor charge of theft by deception and was even questioned in as part of an assault claim in a bar fight in October 2010 in Nashville. Most recently on May 11, Britt was arrested and charged with eluding a police officer, lying to an officer/hindering apprehension and obstruction governmental function after Britt and a friend were allegedly clocked speeding in Bayonne, NJ. When an officer attempted to pull them over, the car allegedly sped up and began to weave in and out of highway traffic, eventually exiting the highway where Britt and his friend walked away from the parked vehicle. When the officer ordered them to stop for questioning, Britt denied being in the vehicle, but would later admit to being the passenger after further questioning. Eluding an officer is a third-degree felony in New Jersey, while the other two charges are both classified as misdemeanors.
Under the terms of both the old and new CBA, Commissioner Goodell holds the ultimate trump card: the ability to suspend NFL players under the Personal Conduct Policy for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the national Football League.” Goodell has set a strong precedent that criminal conduct, such as Britt?s, falls outside the permissible scope of acceptable player conduct and has not hesitated to hand out suspensions of varying lengths for similar actions. For example, former Bengals WR Chris Henry was arrested five times in three states between 2005 and 2008 and was suspended by Goodell for the first eight games of the 2007 season. Britt’s similar history of arrests would likely warrant a suspension of at least a few games after his latest incident.
The issue though is whether Goodell is willing to suspend a player for conduct that occurred while players were locked out. Courts have held that normal conditions of employment do not hold true when an employer decides to lock out his employees. For example, employers have no duty to pay employees during the term of the lockout. However, the inverse relationship is true: employees are no longer bound by the terms of the expired collective bargaining agreement. According to Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, players should have a strong case against the league should Goodell choose to fine or suspend players for violations committed during the lockout. “They’ve [the NFL] frozen the employment of NFL players,” said McCann. “So, the players will likely say, ‘If we’re not getting paid, then we’re not obligated to follow our contracts.'” By preventing players from obtaining employee benefits, wages, the players are under no duty to satisfy employment obligations.
Therefore, I have my doubts as to whether the league would win a court appeal of any punishments it chooses to hand out should the newly re-formed NFLPA challenge them. If you’re barring players from doing their job, and refusing to pay them, why should the players be forced to follow the league’s vague rules of conduct? Britt, who met with Goodell earlier this week, has a good chance of avoiding suspension based on what is essentially a technicality. However, he would be wise to avoid any more legal trouble as I am certain Goodell would bring a swift and heavy punishment for any future transgressions.