The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) filed a grievance on behalf of Aaron Hernandez against the New England Patriots for withholding payment of an $82,000 offseason workout bonus that was due on August 1. The workout bonus was a part of the five-year, $37.5 million contract extension (including a $12.5 million signing bonus and worth up to a maximum of $40 million through Pro Bowl incentives) Hernandez signed last August.
The NFLPA has received some criticism for helping Hernandez assert his rights because he is in a Massachusetts jail awaiting trial for the murder of Odin Lloyd. Previously, the NFLPA defended Michael Vick in 2007 while he was in prison for running a dogfighting operation when the Atlanta Falcons attempted to recoup over $20 million in signing and roster bonuses that they had paid him.
Hernandez’s workout bonus clause required successful completion of at least 90% of the workouts in New England’s voluntary offseason workout program. Unlike some workout bonus clauses in NFL contracts, there weren’t any other conditions that needed to be satisfied for the bonus to be earned. In order to qualify for a workout bonus payment in some contracts, it’s also necessary for a player to either report to or complete training camp. Some teams specify that supervised rehabilitation of an injury with the team’s trainer counts as satisfactory participation while a player isn’t able to fully participate in the workout program, which the Patriots didn’t in Hernandez’s contract, with their workout bonus clauses.
Hernandez was recovering from shoulder surgery during the offseason which limited his participation in organized team activities and mini-camp. It may have also limited him during the workout program. Since Hernandez’s workout clause doesn’t account for supervised rehabilitation, the Patriots may contend that he didn’t fulfill his workout obligations because his shoulder surgery prevented him from successfully completing workouts. It remains to be seen whether the arbitrator would find this type of argument persuasive.
Will the Patriots be forced to pay Aaron Hernandez his $82,000 workout bonus?
The fight over the workout bonus is just a preview of things to come between Hernandez and the Patriots. The final $3.25 million payment of Hernandez’s $12.5 million signing bonus is due next March 31. It’s expected that the Patriots will withhold the payment in their quest to recoup $10 million of Hernandez’s signing bonus.
Signing bonuses can be forfeited and recouped under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) when a player breaches his contract. The maximum amount of a signing bonus that can be forfeited each year is the prorated amount under the salary cap. Hernandez’s signing bonus was counting $2.5 million on New England’s cap from 2012 through 2016 prior to his release. Typically, a breach occurs when a player is suspended or withholds his services from a team once training camp starts. The CBA also includes incarceration as a breach.
The Patriots appear to have compromised their ability to recover the signing bonus from Hernandez by releasing him so quickly after his arrest for Lloyd’s murder. The timing of Hernandez’s release suggests that the Patriots were more concerned about the franchise’s image than financial considerations. The Patriots should have followed the Falcons’ example with Vick if recouping money was a primary concern. The Falcons kept Vick under contract until 2009 even though he had been suspended indefinitely by the NFL and was in prison because of their grievance against him to recoup bonus money.
New England’s case could be strengthened if Hernandez is charged in connection with the July 2012 double murder in which he is a person of interest. Paragraph 35 of Hernandez’s contract contains a clause where he represents and warrants that there weren’t any existing circumstances when he signed his deal that would prevent his continuing availability throughout the contract. Committing or participating in a double murder should meet this standard. Although paragraph 35 doesn’t explicitly state that the Patriots wouldn’t have entered into the contract except for Hernandez’s representations, it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Patriots to make such a claim if those circumstances arise.
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Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Prior to his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott. You can email Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.