Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Loyalty clause is needed

By Mike Brown
Guest columnist

        Much has been said and written on the pages of the Enquirer about what it describes as the Bengals' “loyalty clause,” including the editorial that appeared Thursday. A lot of it misses the point. What this is about is (1) encouraging people to honor contractual commitments, (2) encouraging them, if they are under contract, to put their teammates above themselves and (3) conserving scarce salary cap resources to apply to players who want to be with a team.

        Let me start with what I trust no one will dispute: the relationship between team cohesiveness and team performance. For as long as team sports have been played, it has been demonstrated that teams that bond well perform well on the field. Players who openly criticize their teammates and coaches undermine the team's ability to win games. The same is true with organizations everywhere.

        In the NFL, there is nothing new in recognizing that reality and in working to eliminate sources of team friction. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement, like its predecessors, directly addresses the issue when it provides that the union and Management Council “each will use its best efforts to curtail public comments by club personnel or players which express criticism of any club, its coach, or its operation and policy, or which tend to cast discredit upon a club, a player, or any other person involved in the operation of a club...”

        By signing the NFL player contract, each player commits himself to: “give his best efforts and loyalty to the club and to conduct himself on and off the field with appropriate recognition of the fact that the success of professional football depends largely on the public respect for and approval of those associated with the game...”

        The challenge comes with getting some players to honor their commitments. The ultimate incentive a player has to do what is right under his contract is that otherwise he will lose his job. For a hard-working overachiever who just made the team as the fifth wide receiver, that incentive works well (but is frankly never needed).

        Where it can break down is with a player who, though under a long-term contract, believes he is underpaid and wants to test his value in the free-agent marketplace. He could have signed his contract several years ago that, while good at the time, now pays less than others at his position are receiving. Or he could have received a large up-front signing bonus, so that what he receives each year is relatively rather modest — and certainly less than his compensation would be if he could enter into a new deal with a new signing bonus.

        Under the current system, that player can undertake a campaign to attack and vilify teammates, coaches, organization and community. We have seen such conduct throughout the league. While this conduct is a clear breach of the commitment he made in signing his player contract, the ultimate remedy for the team is to give the player exactly what he wants: a release from his contract. That benefits the player and hurts the club by forcing the club to accelerate into the current year the entire remainder of the signing bonus that would otherwise, for salary cap purposes, be spread out over the remaining years of his contract.

        The reality is, of course, that the multi-million dollar signing bonus was nothing other than payment for future performance over the term of the contract. What we have agreed to as part of the long-term contracts with a number of players is that if, during the course of the term, the player walks away from his commitments under that contract, he can forfeit a proportionate share of that prepaid compensation. We then, under the salary cap, can take that money and pay it to other players who are interested in being in this community and playing for this team.

        Contrary to what you have written, this is not about “muzzling critics.” It is about encouraging players with enormous God-given talent to honor their commitments and to do what is right by their teammates. And, in the NFL world of salary caps, you do not want salary cap resources going to disgruntled former teammates.

        I would hope that the Enquirer's coverage of this issue would reflect these realities.

        Mike Brown is president and general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals.


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