“On behalf of all players, its our responsibility to protect the rights in the collective bargaining agreement. We are not tone-deaf to what the allegations are in this case, but for the benefit of all players, there are important precedents here we must protect.”
This is the statement the National Football Player’s Association (NFLPA) issued after the announcement that the NFLPA decided to side with former New England Patriots Tight End, Aaron Hernandez, and file a grievance against Hernandez’s former team. Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder on June 26, 2013, of his friend Odin Lloyd. The Patriots released Hernandez from the team later that day, which sparked the grievance.
Aaron Hernandez’s Issues
As part of any standard NFL contract, bonuses are attached to the contract for specific performance from the players. Aaron Hernandez had an $82,000 workout bonus that was included with his rookie contract. To receive this bonus, Hernandez would have work out at least four times a week over the course of the nine-week offseason workout program to qualify for this workout bonus, which he did. However, since his arrest, the New England Patriots have failed to pay their former tight end, which has triggered the NFLPA to file the grievance on behalf of Hernandez.
On August 27, 2012, Aaron Hernandez and the New England Patriots agreed to a five-year extension worth up to 40 million dollars, which included $12.5 million signing bonus, $3.25 million of which was deferred payment for March 2014. The New England Patriots will attempt to withhold this deferred payment from Aaron Hernandez as well.
What The Law Says
As Yahoo! Sports points out, Article 4, Section 9(a)(ii) of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement states that if any player is “unavailable to the team due to conduct by him that results in his incarceration” is in violation of his contract and has committed a “forfeitable breach” and may be mandatory to surrender the portion of the signing bonus for each year that a breach occurs.
So Why Is The NFLPA Backing Hernandez?
The NFLPA stated that its responsibility is to protect any precedent that this grievance may have in the future. Although the public’s image of Hernandez is guilty, the NFLPA still has to represent Hernandez to the best of their ability.
The simple fact is that Aaron Hernandez met all the requirements to receive his workout bonus of $82,000. Since the arrest was made following the completion of the voluntary workouts, the Patriots have a weak case for withholding the bonus from Hernandez, who is in need of all the income he can retain for legal expenses. There is no legal precedent that allows teams to withhold bonuses from players with legal issues and the NFLPA will fight hard to ensure that precedent does not change.
Between A Rock And A Hard Place
Since the previously stated Yahoo Article only applies to players who are “unavailable to the team,” the efforts by the Patriots to withhold the deferred $3.25 million payment for the signing bonus may fall short. If the Patriots had kept the tight end on the roster through the duration of his new contract, including his trial and incarceration, there would have been an easier road for the team to recover the bonuses given to Hernandez.
However, using a strict reading of the aforementioned Article, “unavailable to the team” would have been appropriate if the team would have retained his services even through his arrest and incarceration. In spite of this, the Patriots released Aaron Hernandez, which caused him to be “unavailable to the team” due to the team releasing him.
I know what you are thinking, this is a ridiculous distinction, and a team should be permitted to release any player when that player is under serious allegations, such as murder. Although the distinction may be small, the Patriots had a decision that conflicted with their team values. Keeping Hernandez on the team to eventually receive salary cap relief would have diminished the team’s image. However, releasing Hernandez immediately stabled the values in the organization even though the team had to take a salary cap hit. The New England Patriots made the right moral decision to release Aaron Hernandez; but withholding his bonus payments may not prove to be the right decision.
How Will It Play Out?
I presume that the NFLPA will win the grievance for Aaron Hernandez filed against the New England Patriots. The NFLPA has a duty to serve all of the players in the league and protect all of their rights. Since precedent weighs in favor of the NFLPA, I presume it will be highly unlikely for the league and its teams to withhold payment already earned by its players.