by Jack Bechta
August 14, 02009
Agents don’t get a lot of calls from their clients during the first half of camp, but when they do it’s usually bad news. In most cases, it’s about an injury.
When a good vet gets injured, the team goes the extra mile to do everything possible to get him back and ready. It will save him a roster spot and wait until he recovers. If it’s very bad, it will place him on the PUP (physically unable to perform) Reserve list in hopes of getting him back by Week 7 of the regular season, the first week that PUP reserved players either have to be moved to the 53-man roster, released or put on injured reserve (IR).
If you’re an undrafted free agent, a late-round draft pick or a street free agent, you may get treated a lot differently. It’s the difference between flying first class and coach (and getting the middle seat).
For players who go on IR, it’s pretty cut and dried. They’re lost to that team for the season. However, if they’re released at some point after being placed on IR, it’s because, in the team’s opinion, they’re healthy enough to play and are then free to sign with another team.
THE INJURY SETTLEMENT
One of the most important roles of an agent is to shine when his client gets hurt during camp, especially if he’s a down-the-line player who’s already a long shot to make the team. When a player in this category suffers a serious injury (out for six weeks or more), the team wants to part ways quickly and wash its hands of the liability.
When a team calls an agent and says it wants to do an “injury settlement,” that means the agent and either the GM or salary-cap manager have to come up with a time frame they think would be equivalent to the duration of the player’s injury. This process is greatly flawed because you have two non-medical professionals trying to forecast the healing time of an injury based on the team doctor’s prognosis. It’s the agent’s job to tell the team that the player would like a second opinion. Teams must agree to a second opinion but don’t always like it because 80 percent of the time the second doctor forecasts a much longer recovery.
Once both doctors’ opinions are in, a negotiation for the injury settlement begins. If the team doctor thinks the player will be fully recovered in six weeks and the second-opinion doctor says 10 weeks, both parties may agree on an eight-week settlement. So if a player was hurt on Aug. 15, he would be paid as if he was on the roster until Week 4 of the regular season. He’s then paid for four preseason games and four-sixteenths of what his salary would have been for that season.
These are not always simple negotiations. Sometimes, the spread in medical opinions can be as much as 10 weeks to three months. I have an internal policy not to attempt an injury settlement if there’s a prognosis of 10 weeks or more. I would prefer to put the responsibility on the team to carry the player on IR until it can either prove the player is healthy or the player tells me he’s healthy enough to play. I basically don’t want to play doctor and try to predict recovery times. When I tried it as a younger agent, I was wrong 60 percent of the time.
These negotiations can also become testy at times. When a team has an injured player it brought in strictly as a camp guy, it hates being stuck with the liability of rehabbing the player and paying him a contract. It will aggressively pursue a short injury settlement. Additionally, some teams will even pressure the agent into taking an inferior deal with threats of “We’ll never sign another one of your players again if you don’t take this deal.”
In 2000, I represented a seventh-round pick who suffered a concussion during the second week of camp. Three days later, the NFC West division team threw him back into practice, and he suffered another concussion. Seven days after that, he went back into live action and suffered a third concussion. Although the player knew he never should have returned to practice, he felt he was under pressure to show the coaches he was worthy of making the team.
After a second opinion, I asked the GM (who’s now out of the league) to place my client on IR for the year for his own good. He would also earn his full salary, which, although important, wasn’t the reason I wanted him moved to IR. The GM had another opinion. He told me that my client was faking the injuries, was conning the team and the doctors, and he was going to cut him without any consideration of pay.
I then told the GM that if he did that, I would file a grievance with the NFL Players Association and hold the team accountable for my client’s injury and salary. He began screaming at me that I was in on the “scam” and that if I did file a grievance he would never sign or draft one of my players again. All I could really do was laugh and tell him that I had to follow protocol, not play doctor, and do what was in the best interests of my client.
We eventually had several other medical specialists confirm the concussions and won the grievance for my client’s full salary. The player retired, and the team drafted another of my clients two years later. Business as usual.
Many agents who take inferior injury settlements wind up getting fired when the recovery time is much longer than the settlement time. A seasoned agent will always proceed based on a worst-case scenario for his client. I just hope I don’t have to negotiate any this year.
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