In Earl Thomas’s first-person essay for the Players’ Tribune published Thursday morning — the first public airing of his position — the Seahawks’ recalcitrant star finally exposed the fundamental disconnect driving his holdout. He thinks he’s playing basketball or baseball.
At least, he’s thinking he’s playing under the collective bargaining agreements of either MLB or NBA, both of which guarantee many more contracts, and portions of contracts, against injury than does the NFL.
Let’s take a look at the key point of his argument, which has nothing to do with his affection for Seattle and his teammates, or his splendid eight-year history of play, or the wrong-headed idea put out by critics that he’s being selfish.
“If you’re risking your body to deliver all of this value to an organization, then you deserve some sort of assurance that the organization will take care of you if you get hurt. It’s that simple. This isn’t new, and this isn’t complicated.”
Let’s break down Thomas’s statement.
Deserve protection against injury? No.
It’s that simple? No.
This isn’t new? Yes.
This isn’t complicated? No.
Thomas’s degree of misunderstanding is such that I have to believe he composed the essay without running it past his agent, David Mulugheta. And if he did run it past his agent, he needs a new agent.
Thomas is right that he’s risking his body to deliver value for the organization. But that’s true with every player under contract with the NFL. Thomas is neither more nor less deserving of financial protection from injury than any of them.
He is a member of the NFL players union, an organization that has been far less successful than its counterparts in pro baseball and basketball in negotiating with team owners for more guaranteed money for most of its membership. That’s primarily because the union decades ago accepted a harder salary cap for player payroll than the other sports. That happened despite the fact that, for obvious reasons, football has a far higher incidence of career-ending injuries.
A primary consequence of the cap is to retard the use of guaranteed money by owners to maintain maximum roster flexibility in a sport that has far more players to pay than MLB or NBA.
Obviously, there is some guaranteed money in the NFL. In the latest Seattle example, the contract of LT Duane Brown was extended Friday for three years despite his age, 33 next month. The maximum potential value of the extension, according to spotrac.com, is $34.5 million; however, only $16.25 million is guaranteed.
The former all-pro solves a large weakness in the Seahawks offense, but the guaranteed money is at a risk level the Seahawks think is manageable for a position not dependent on speed.
But a similar deal for Thomas is unlikely to please him, because at 29 he believes he’s at the top of his game and deserves something closer to what the market leader, Kansas City FS Eric Berry, received: Six years, $78 million, $40 million guaranteed, with an average annual salary of $13 million.
That level of guarantee to a player over 30, no matter how good, who plays a speed-dependent position, is likely the deal-breaker for the Seahawks. It is especially true now that the three-year extension given SS Kam Chancellor blew up with a career-ending neck injury last season. Over 2018 and 2019, the Seahawks owe Chancellor $12 million in salary guaranteed protected from injury, unless a settlement is reached.
Ironically, one of Thomas’s greatest virtues — he plays all out, all the time — works against him in negotiations because of an increased chance for injury, even though the club would never admit it. He sort of made the point himself in his essay.
“It’s the reason I’m holding out — I want to be able to give my everything, on every play, without any doubt in my mind,” he wrote. “And it’s the reason why I’m asking the Seahawks to do one of two things: Offer me an extension. Or trade me to a team that wants me to be part of their future.”
It’s understandable that Thomas would want an extension and a larger guarantee after what happened to ex-teammate Richard Sherman. After tearing his Achilles tendon at midseason, Sherman, one of the greatest players in club history, was unceremoniously dumped for nothing before free agency began in March. His career continues in San Francisco, under a small-guarantee contract heavy with incentives.
Obviously, Sherman’s negotiating position was compromised by more than injury. He wore his coaches out. They were done fussing with him. Thomas also did himself no favors when he publicly solicited Cowboys coach Jason Garrett in December by saying, “Come get me.” If the coaches and staff were not infuriated by Thomas’s foolishness, I clearly overestimated them.
The episode isn’t a deal-breaker, although it could be a tie-breaker for some in the front office if they were debating whether to extend Thomas’s contract. Apparently they aren’t. There’s no evidence from Thomas’s essay or coach Pete Carroll’s remarks at training camp that talks are under way.
He has a year left on his deal that will pay him $8.5 million, which is now a little less because he’s being fined $40,000 for each day he misses.
The Seahawks are as unlikely to reward a holdout as Thomas is unlikely to understand that he doesn’t “deserve” protection from injury — unless the union wants to make guarantees a far bigger deal in the next collective bargaining negotiation with owners. That likely would create a counter-proposal from owners demanding the players reduce their 50 percent share of NFL revenues.
Such a development likely would be after Thomas is retired. For now, the stalemate continues until the Seahawks receive a trade offer they like better than getting Thomas for half a season (by CBA rules, he must play half a season to gain free agency in 2019).
Perhaps the Seahawks should consider including the Yankees and Lakers in trade talks.