Concussions and Contracts: Can Concern Over Long-Term Player Health Pave the Way to Greater Guarantees in NFL Contracts?

Guaranteed money in an NFL player contract is often misrepresented when discussing the earnings of professional football players. Whenever an NFL player signs a new contract, purportedly setting a new benchmark and surpassing previous highs for compensation, reports of record guarantees dominate the news coverage. Lost in the reporting, however, is the actual guaranteed take-home pay of the player if the worst were to happen and he were to never play another down of football. In a sport riddled with injuries and short careers compared to other professional sports, the most important contract figure is not total compensation, but total guaranteed compensation. Unlike professional basketball and professional baseball, NFL players do not receive fully guaranteed contracts, meaning they play one of the most dangerous sports and do so with some of the least financial assurances. This is especially troubling in light of the recent revelations, research, and litigation focusing on head trauma in NFL players. Although there is certainly desire among NFL players to obtain larger guarantees in contracts, there has rarely been the will or ability to do so. NFL players are free to attempt to negotiate for larger guarantees on an individual basis with any team interested in their services, but history suggests that large sums of guaranteed money are reserved for only for the most elite players. Even then, guarantees rarely exceed 30–50% of the total compensation. Notwithstanding the foregoing, there is still opportunity for the players to negotiate for larger guarantees in contracts through means of collective bargaining when the NFL–NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021. Success in this endeavor, however, requires understanding the balance of power between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, addressing the many structural barriers to guaranteed contracts, harnessing the growing concern over player safety, and capitalizing on the exodus of talent from the NFL.