FREDDY KASTEN—In 1925, upon graduating from the University of Illinois, Red Grange signed a contract with the Chicago Bears worth $100,000. Even that long ago, one would have expected any three-time First-Team All-American to command a large sum of money for his services. However, at that time, most NFL players were only being paid twenty-five to 100 dollars per game at the most, with some playing entirely for free. So, how was Grange able to secure a contract worth nearly 1000 times more than his peers’? Because he was the first to hire an agent, and that agent did all of the negotiating for him.
Once the other players learned about the terms of Grange’s contract, more and more began hiring agents over the next forty years at an exponential rate. This trend led to the league’s owners appointing the first Commissioner to represent them in labor negotiations in 1941, and the NFL Player’s Union’s (“NFLPA”) inception in 1956.
Today, almost every NFL player is represented by an agent, with massive agencies such as CAA, Sportstars, Athletes First, and Rosenhaus Sports collectively representing over 100 players and having negotiated billions of dollars in contracts. Yet, earlier this month, one of the most decorated and talented players in the league, Richard Sherman, sparked a great deal of controversy after choosing to negotiate his latest contract without an agent. Entirely on his own, Sherman got the San Francisco 49ers to give him a three-year, 39.15 million dollar deal, including a five million dollar signing bonus.
Although Sherman is not the first NFL player or professional athlete to do this, as a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time First-Team All-Pro member, and Super Bowl Champion, he is the most recent and certainly the most renowned to have ever done so. Sherman is not an expert at reading contracts, nor does he have a law degree. To prepare for negotiations with San Francisco, Sherman “downloaded past contracts from the NFLPA database and, with the union’s help, spent a lot of time studying the language and structure and nuances within contracts.” He actually even received more guaranteed money for 2018 in this contract than he did in his last one, which an agent negotiated for him.
No matter what one thinks about whether Sherman could have secured a better deal with an agent’s assistance, one need not look any further than the poor job that the NFLPA did in negotiating the league’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) with the Commissioner and league owners. Pursuant to the CBA, which was signed into agreement in 2011, teams do not have to guarantee that any money is actually paid to a player under his contract past its first year. For example, Jonathan Hankins signed a three-year contract worth twenty-seven million dollars last winter with the Indianapolis Colts; after the team decided that it was moving in a different direction and hired a new head coach, Hankins was cut during the offseason and will not receive any of the remaining seventeen million dollars that the team originally promised him. In comparison, the NHL and NBA both fully guarantee their players’ contracts for their entire length, even if the player suffers an injury.
Now, some might think that it is just for a player not to be paid if he is not performing up to par or is hurt and not playing games for his team. However, the average career of an NFL player is only 3.3 years, compared to 4.8 years in the NBA, 5.6 in the MLB, and 5.5 in the NHL. Because of how likely it is that players will be out of the league after just three seasons and that they are hardly guaranteed any money under their contracts, most NFL players need to earn every penny that they possibly can during their careers. Since NFL players have to pay their agents three percent of their contracts, they can save hundreds of thousands of dollars by proceeding without an agent, just as Sherman did.
So, if the NFLPA fails to get the Commissioner and owners to guarantee their players more money during the next CBA negotiations, it is almost an absolute certainty that there will be a lockout after the current CBA expires in 2020. What’s more, it could mean the death of the NFL agent as we know it, with players opting to negotiate their own contracts and keep the three percent that they would have otherwise had to pay an agent.