From stealing to kneeling, what do NFL player contracts say about “bad” behavior?

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.”

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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 dogfightingBut 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.

CFO
“Seattle’s hometown airline” Alaska Airlines “couldn’t be more proud of Seattle’s football hero, Russell Wilson.” Thanks to Wilson’s impressive skill and wholesome image, they even made him their CFO! Chief Football Officer, that is.

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 Postconstitutional 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).

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Nike released a controversial commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick, which hints at the embroilment over NFL players kneeling during the American national anthem.

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.

For creatives in California, a recent employment law case may raise concerns over copyright ownership

For creatives in California, a recent employment law case may raise concerns over copyright ownership

This story was first published for the 1709 Blog, where I regularly write about copyright law in entertainment, technology and media. 

A California court ruling from April has raised concerns regarding its potential impact on copyright ownership. In Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angelesthe matter before the court was a wage dispute, which required the court to consider the standard to apply in determining whether workers should be classified as employees, or as independent contractors.

Nowhere in the 85-page judgement is “copyright” or even “intellectual property” mentioned. However, in a state with so many media and software companies, the new ruling could affect whether a creator or a company gets to claim ownership as the original author of a work. In deciding if a worker is eligible for statutory employment protections, Dynamex replaced a complex multi-factor consideration with a simple three-part “ABC” test. Now, Californian companies are burdened with the requirement to prove that all three parts weigh against an employment relationship.

What does this mean for copyright law? The rise of the gig economy, which is characterised by short-term contracts and freelance work, poses new questions for intellectual property ownership. To determine if someone is an employee for purposes of copyright authorship, American Federal courts currently use a test in the US Treasury Department’s Internal Revenue Service code.

If, however, the courts start looking to the Dynamex case for guidance, people’s expectations might change. Speaking to Bloomberg Law, music industry lawyer Michael S. Poster explained: “If, under California law, a lot more people are going to be treated as employees rather than as independent contractors, chances are that a lot of their work product that they would have retained a copyright interest in might belong to their employer.”

Although the Copyright Act of 1976 provides authors with initial copyright interests, under the work-made-for-hire doctrine, it is the employer that is considered to be the author. (Section 201(b)). On the other hand, if the author is an independent contractor or freelancer – rather than an employee – ownership is retained by the individual creator, unless there is a contractual agreement to the contrary.

For participants in the gig economy, the Dynamex ruling could simply prompt media and software companies to hire fewer independent contractors, and instead only hire people as employees. Although the copyright implications of Dynamex are unknown, the decision underscores the need for employers and workers alike to ensure that any contract for services includes a carefully drafted intellectual property rights clause – especially for those in creative industries.

Morality clauses and talent contracts

Morality clauses and talent contracts

As the year draws to a close, most of us will think back on the people and events that shaped 2017. Considered by many to have been one of the biggest stories of the year, it would be difficult to ignore the social (and legal) discourse surrounding the more than forty high-profile men caught in sexual misconduct scandals.

Last month, Netflix removed Kevin Spacey from its hit show House of Cards after Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct. However, Spacey claims Netflix cannot legally fire him because his contract did not contain a morality clause. Similarly, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s employment agreement may have only a very “loose” morals clause that does not allow for his termination, so long as he pays contractual fines and any costs incurred by his company due to his behavior.

A morality clause is a contractual provision that gives a party (usually a company) the unilateral right to terminate the agreement, or take punitive action against the other party (the “talent,” which is usually an individual whose endorsement or image is sought) in the event that such other party engages in reprehensible behavior or conduct that may negatively impact his or her public image and, by association, the public image of the contracting company (source).

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The price of talent: new California law seeks to address gender pay gap

The price of talent: new California law seeks to address gender pay gap

“I knew I was being paid less and I still agreed to do American Hustle because the option comes down to do it, or don’t do it. So you just have to decide if it’s worth it for you. It doesn’t mean I liked it.” — Amy Adams

From January 2018, employers in California will be prohibited from asking job applicants about their previous pay.  Guidance for the new Labor Code 432.3 states “closing the wage gap starts with barring employers from asking questions about salary history, so that previous salary discrimination is not perpetuated.” If asked to do so, employers must also provide the “pay scale” for the position being filled. The Code does not prohibit applicants from volunteering their salary history, nor does it prohibit an employer from using that information to determine their offer.

How does this compare with equal pay laws in England? Before the Equal Pay Act 1970 and Sex Discrimination Act 1975, businesses did not hide the fact that men and women who performed the same job could be paid different wages, or that certain lower-paid jobs were explicitly reserved for women. The current legislation, the Equality Act 2010, states that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work, as prescribed by Article 157 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

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Film workers’ rights to be restored as New Zealand announces repeal of controversial “Hobbit Law”

Film workers’ rights to be restored as New Zealand announces repeal of controversial “Hobbit Law”

Has New Zealand been too friendly towards Hollywood, at the expense of its own workforce? New Zealand’s incoming Labour Government promises to restore certain employment protections for film cast and crew, by repealling the controversial “Hobbit Law” within the next 100 days.

New Zealand is famous for being film-friendly. Gorgeous landscapes provide dramatic settings not far from the city comforts, and generous financial incentives are available in the form of government grants. Since the 1990s in particular, the country’s film and television industry has participated in many large, complex international productions: such films include The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings franchises, The Chronicles of Narnia, the 2005 King Kong remake, Avatar, District 9, The Lovely Bones, and – a personal favourite of mine – The Piano (pictured above). 

Earlier this year, Statistics NZ announced that the country’s screen industry revenue had increased to $3.3 billion in 2016, with film production revenue doubling to more than $1 billion. In addition to direct revenues, film and television content also promotes and enhances New Zealand’s “national brand,” with many tourists visiting the country specifically because of what they’ve seen on screen.

But has New Zealand been too friendly towards Hollywood, at the expense of its own workforce? New Zealand’s so-called “Hobbit Law” came into force in 2010 as a direct result of actors on Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit threatening industrial action. Warner Brothers’ Studio suggested it would retaliate by relocating the US $500m production elsewhere, with Jackson mentioning the possibility of filming in Eastern Europe instead. To keep The Hobbit in New Zealand, Parliament passed the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill 2010 to limit screen industry workers’ rights.

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