Before I became a full-time agent, I always had a very passionate opinion about holdouts by pro athletes. I couldn’t imagine that a deal couldn’t be reached and wondered why a player would want to miss one day or one month working for an NFL team. My first thoughts were always that the player and/or his agent were being greedy. And the media often explained the reason behind the holdout by reporting one side, usually the team’s.
Once I began representing higher-round draft choices in the early 1990s, I learned firsthand why players hold out: They’re usually not being treated fairly. I’m not saying it’s always the team’s fault, but it often is.
You must understand that when a player is drafted by an NFL team, he has no other option but to negotiate only with that team. If he can’t reach an agreement, he doesn’t have the right to say, “Sorry, Mr. Jones, but I don’t think you’re treating me fairly so I’m going to see if Mr. Snyder will give me a better deal.” As a result, teams know they have the leverage in their exclusivity. Additionally, many players and their families panic once camp starts and a deal is not done. Teams also know this to be commonplace, so some will test the player’s nerves.
A majority of players will listen to their agents when a contract is not reached by the start of camp. The holdout is not a strategy, it’s a reaction, the only way a player can say, “You’re not treating me fairly.” I should add, when rookies don’t make it to camp on time it technically should not be called a holdout because they’re not under contract. Veterans under contract can hold out.
When the agents are the problem
There have been certain agents or agencies over the past decade that have a history of not getting their rookie deals done in time for camp. We in the industry know who they are. Their methods are downright militant at times. They convince their clients that they have to “send a message” to ownership and that the team needs them more than they need the team. These agents usually try to get an unreasonable premium by holding the player hostage. Unfortunately, these guys think they’re working in the best interest of their clients. Most of the time, they’re trying to make names for themselves.
There is also a growing concern and frustration among general managers about one large agency that’s working at its own pace and disregarding camp opening dates. Four GMs and three team negotiators I’ve spoken to over the past seven days have told me that this firm is dictating its own timetable for getting deals done based on the order of draft picks they represent and the location of those picks in the first round. I’m being told that there’s no sense of urgency from this firm and that it won’t start talking seriously until camps open. My problem is that this strategy is not openly disclosed to players when they sign with the firm. The deals will ultimately get done, as they always do, but players may miss a week or more that they don’t have to.
The wait and see
Many agents, and even teams, hate doing deals until they get to see what deals or slots came in above or below them. They simply hate looking bad among their peers since early deals can be easily leap-frogged by later deals. So if an agent’s deal is inferior to others in the same round, his competitors will use it against him while recruiting next year’s class of clients. What happens is that everybody waits until the last minute. There’s a lot of that going on right now.
The position premium
Many times, if an agent has a player drafted in the first round – let’s say a quarterback with the 10th pick -- the agent will make a case that he’s worth more than slots 9, 8 and/or 7 because he’s a QB. The team doesn’t like it because it has only allocated formulated cap dollars based on the slot, not the player’s position. But I personally believe that sometimes the slotting system has to be thrown out for QBs. I also think the agent for WR Michael Crabtree is trying to make the case that the slotting theory doesn’t apply to his client because he’s a special receiver who would have been a top three pick if he were not injured before the draft. I don’t see a problem with his position, but I’m sure the 49ers will.
The bottom line is that the average career of an NFL player lasts 3.5 years. It’s the agent’s job to see that he gets the most he can since he may never make it to a second contract.
Painters, plumbers, teachers and pipefitters have unions. CEOs have high-priced attorneys. Players have agents. Don’t begrudge a young man for getting the most the market can bear for his unique services. And don’t always believe what you read in the media about a holdout because you might not know what side the information is coming from. Be patient with the process and don’t judge a player because he didn’t make to camp on time. The players are usually clueless regarding the politics of team and agent procedures.
This year, I see more holdouts coming as owners tighten their purse strings and the larger agencies are more concerned about their competition than their clients. There has to be a better way.
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