For NFL players, “honor your contract” is misplaced

When NFL players who are under contract decide to take a stand in an effort to get a better contract, many fans and media respond with a three-word refrain.

Honor your contract.

It’s not nearly that simple, for two important reasons.

First, NFL players are parties to two equally important contracts. Beyond the contract each player signs with his team, all players are parties to the contract between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. That contract — the Collective Bargaining Agreement — grants players specific rights relevant to their individual contracts, such as the ability to hold out from training camp in exchange for the payment of fines for doing so.

The employer doesn’t sue the player for breaching his contract. The CBA creates the remedy if the player holds out. He pays the fines set forth in the broader contract.

Both documents apply to the relationship between player and team. And it’s the CBA that takes precedence; that’s the global contract that delineates the rights and responsibilities of labor and management.

Second, these are not the normal, bilateral contracts. It’s a one-way street, with the only protection for the players coming from any guaranteed money in the deal.

As explained on Tuesday’s PFT Live, if your boss approaches you tomorrow with an offer for a five-year contract but the contract ties you to the arrangement but not the company, you’d be pissed. NFL player contracts basically operate that way.

The player is bound for as long as the team wants him to be. The team is bound only as long as it cares to be.

Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones believes he has outperformed the final year of his contract. So he’s trying to get a raise. If the Chiefs had believed he was underperforming, they would have torn it up.

That’s their right. But it proves the point. This isn’t a normal contractual setting. The system is mostly rigged for the teams. The players have options under the CBA.

When a player takes advantage of those options, he’s not violating his contract. He’s respecting the limited rights afforded to him under a system that favors the employers so significantly that it compels players to sign contracts that, in a normal employment environment, few employees would be willing to sign.

Honor your contract.

Remember those words the next time the employer tears up a contract and cuts a players loose — especially if they do it just before the season starts and the player has no real options to find comparable work with another team.

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