Rookie contracts: Part 3

The Split

From the third to the seventh rounds (and for any undrafted free agents), every negotiation includes a discussion of a split contract based on a player becoming injured and moved off the active roster during the season.

The theory of a split is that, from a team’s perspective, a player should not earn full salary and cap value in the event he suffers a season-ending injury. The player will have to be replaced on the roster by another salary and cap value and will continue to count on the team’s payroll and cap, albeit at a lower number.

There are two types of splits, one being more onerous to players than the other.

Camp Split

The first type is referred to as a “camp split,” “preseason split” or “training camp split.” It operates to lower a player’s salary to the split amount in the event the player suffers a season-ending injury during training camp or before the time rosters are set for the opening of the season. In this case, should a player suffer this injury and be placed on the reserve/injured list, his salary would be superceded by a lower salary for the coming season.

The advantage of this type of split for players is that once rosters are set in early September and the season begins, the split goes away. Thus, once the player survives training camp without a season-ending injury, his “up” amount of salary is secure (assuming, of course, he is not released for skill reasons).

Full Split

The second type of split is called the “full split” or “game split.” It operates to reduce the player’s salary to the split amount in the event the player suffers a season-ending injury at any point in the preseason or season. The way these clauses are written is simply that a player will be paid the “up” amount at all times he’s a member of the team’s active/inactive 53-man roster and paid the “down” amount at any time he is not a member of such roster, meaning he has been moved to a reserve list.

Teams obviously prefer full splits; player agents obviously prefer camp splits. The annual question from agents about this, usually advanced by the union, is:

“Do you mean to tell me if that my guy has busted his butt for this team through training camp and into the season, playing hurt and sacrificing his body, that you will split his salary if he gets injured in, say, the 12th game of the season? That’s really unfair.”

Fair point. Heard it a hundred times. Here’s a response:

”Do you mean to tell me that if your guy makes it through camp and tears his Achilles on the first kickoff running down the field as a special teams player, we are supposed to pay his full salary for the year?”

The answer is usually a pause and then, “Yes.”

Leverage Rules

The number and type of splits in these rookie contracts is, like everything else, based on leverage. Undrafted rookies and seventh rounders typically will have two full splits. Fourth, fifth and sixth rounders will have two splits, with different combinations of full and camp splits depending on the team and its history. Third rounders now have splits in year one, with most of those being camp splits. Players picked above the third round do not have splits, although at one time, players in the third round did not.

The discussion of the split proves the misconception that these negotiations are all about filling in a dollar amount on the signing bonus. Yes, that’s the most important area of negotiation from a visceral standpoint, yet other structural issues like the escalator and the split end up usually taking more time and haggling than the money.

As I have said many times, negotiations are about allocating risk. The split is one way teams try to shift the risk of injury to the player while agents try to have the team bear that burden.

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