From stealing to kneeling, what do NFL player contracts say about “bad” behavior?
Three times each year, two professional American football teams journey across the pond to play against each other in the NFL London Games. This weekend however, four players from the Jacksonville Jaguars made headlines for something they did off the field. They were arrested under suspicion of fraud by false representation for attempting to leave a nightclub without paying the £50,000 ($64,000) bar tab.
According to ProFootball Talk, expensive bottles of champagne and vodka were sent to the players’ table. They thought someone else was paying, and were surprised to learn that they were expected to pay. The bill was settled hours after the arrest, and the players were released with no further action taken by police. “There was definitely a misunderstanding,” said Barry Church, one of the players arrested. “We handled it as a private matter within the team, and we’ll just go from there.”
Despite their fame and talent, at the end of the day, professional athletes are capable of making mistakes just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, sports stars are often contractually obligated to maintain a positive reputation.
The NFL has had a formal policy addressing off-field conduct since 1997. The current 2014 Personal Conduct Policy prohibits physical violence, illegal possession of a gun or drugs, and cruelty to animals – remember Michael Vick and his dogfighting? But the policy also prohibits anything “that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL.” Even if a player’s conduct does not result in a criminal conviction, the NFL can impose fines, suspension, or even banishment from the league.
In addition to the NFL Policy, individual player contracts also contain “morality clauses.” Also known as a “moral turpitude clause” or “bad boy clause”, this permits an employer to end the contractual relationship if the employee’s conduct breaches the moral expectations laid out in the employment or endorsement agreement. For my overview of the history and use of morality clauses more generally, see Morality Clauses in Talent Contracts.
The 2012 contract between Arian Foster (“Player”) and the Houston Texans (“Club”) is available online thanks to a (fascinating) IPO filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Clauses regarding Foster’s behaviour and conduct included:
- Player agrees 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 public respect for and approval of those associated with the game.
- If at any time, in the sole judgement of Club, Player has engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by Club to adversely affect or reflect on Club, then Club may terminate this contract.
- Player recognizes the detriment to the League and professional football that would result from impairment of public confidence in the integrity and good character of NFL players.
“Meaning Transference” and marketing magic
You might be wondering why a football team should care about the off-field behaviour of its players. As long as the guy can run the ball or block a tackle, who cares if he’s arrested for trying to skip out on a bar tab. Right? Wrong.
Consider for a moment the amount of money teams and companies invest in employment contracts and endorsement agreements. By way of example, Russell Wilson earned $2 million during his first three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. In 2015, the Hawks rewarded their quarterback with a renewed contract worth nearly $90 million. Wilson also gets $10 million a year from his deals with Bose, Nike, and Alaska Airlines. On the other side of the country, the New York Giants’ wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr is earning about $10 million over four years. But the real kicker is that Nike recently signed him for the biggest shoe endorsement ever, worth $25 million over five years.
Meaning Transference is a social theory which posits consumers “transfer” the perceived ideals, credibility and reputation of celebrities to the associated product or service being sold (Grant McCracken). Because negative perceptions can also transfer, a company will want to distance themselves if a celebrity behaves badly. Essentially, morality clauses protect the team or company’s public image from the athlete’s potential scandals. In practice, this could mean suspending or terminating the contract, which could cost the athlete thousands – or potentially millions – of dollars.
The crux of any morality clause is how the “bad behaviour” is defined. Does a player kneeling during the American national anthem adversely affect the image of the NFL?
Given today’s heated political climate, it’s no surprise that professional athletes are increasingly voicing – or otherwise demonstrating – their opinions on social issues. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick of the San Fransisco 49’s started the trend of protesting police brutality and racial inequality, by kneeling during the national anthem at the start of games. Other players soon joined in, much to the ire of many football fans and prominent figures, including President Trump. That same year, Kaepernick was deemed the most hated player in the NFL.
Speaking to The Washington Post, constitutional law Professor Fred Smith Jr. described the anthem debate as a “clash of values which has become a very fraught issue in the American political imagination.” The NFL reacted to the situation by announcing a new policy in May of this year: players must either stand for the national anthem on the field or wait in the locker room. The policy was then shut down by the NFL’s labour union (NFLPA) only two months later.
As the NFL and the NFLPA continue to negotiate, “no new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced”. However, introduction of the new rules in the first place demonstrates that the NFL is at least attempting to mitigate the perception that it is an unpatriotic organisation. It could be argued that from the NFL’s perspective, it is the result of the public’s perception that matters, and not the conduct itself.
In spite of the furor and uproar, Nike made a risky decision in September to feature Colin Kaepernick in an advertising campaign. Despite some backlash and boycotts, the move paid off handsomely overall: Nike received valuable free publicity, and online sales and stock price skyrocketed. In this way, Kaepernick’s kneeling is both detrimental to one organisation (the NFL), as well as highly profitable for another (Nike).
Ultimately, it is critical to understand that morality clauses attempt to regulate something that is continually in flux. Opponents of morality clauses worry that the definition of what constitutes “immoral” or damaging activity could be too broad and subject to abuse by the employer. Smart sports stars and their lawyers will therefore do well to ensure that morality clauses are carefully negotiated and written precisely in order to protect their position – and their paycheques.