Contracts, Concussions Link Kaepernick and Smith

Thursday October 9th, 2014

In watching Alex Smith play against Colin Kaepernick last Sunday, I thought about the way the careers of these two former teammates intersected and then, through a trade, diverged. The way these two players will be forever linked represents an unfortunate reality of football at all levels, despite many measures put in place to guard against it.

But before examining that situation, let’s look at the recently completed extension for Smith, coming on the heels of the new deal for his former backup Kaepernick.

Alex’s Assets 

This drawn out negotiation pitted two experienced football veterans in the business of football, agent Tom Condon and Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, and they finally reached common ground on where to fit Smith in the NFL quarterback financial landscape. While the contract is not in the echelon of last year’s class of Joe Flacco, Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Jay Cutler, it compares to a recent extension of another Condon client, Matthew Stafford (although Stafford had two years, not one, left on his deal).

The Chiefs committed $30 million to Smith at signing—more than twice the initial guarantee given to Kaepernick ($13 million)—and $45 million by March of next year. In practical terms, Kaepernick’s deal is $25 million over two years and then we’ll see; Smith’s is $45 million over three years before we’ll see.

To be fair, Smith had already made more than $56 million in his career and could afford to wait for the right deal. Further, opportunistic agents were circling Kaepernick, poised to strike if he strayed from his relatively inexperienced representation. While Kaepernick remained loyal, those circumstances might have led to a quicker and, for the 49ers, more team-friendly resolution.

Smith has maximized earnings—now guaranteed over $100 million for his career—in a business routinely tilted toward management.

Colin Kaepernick's 49ers got the better of Alex Smith's Chiefs in Week 5. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers got the better of Alex Smith and the Chiefs in Week 5. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Job Switch 

The more important connection between Smith and Kaepernick is an unfortunate case study in concussion management.

As the established—and highly successful—49ers quarterback in 2012, Smith suffered a concussion. Rather than hide his symptoms or attempt to play through it, Smith did exactly what we should have done: he sat out and carefully followed concussion protocols. And we know what happened next: Colin Kaepernick showed what a dynamic player he can be and Smith never played for the 49ers again. Smith remarked at the time: "I feel like the only thing I did to lose my job was get a concussion."

While Smith is in a good place and financially secure, his situation resonates with players: he sat out with a concussion and lost his job. I have heard—and continue to hear—players comment about Smith with the sentiment being, He was their quarterback; if that can happen to him, it can definitely happen to me!

Concussion Conundrum

Players just want to play. They think about the next play, the next game, the next contract; they do not worry about long-term consequences of brain injuries. We were reminded of this last week at the college level when Michigan quarterback Shane Morris, amidst all the noise around him, said he just wanted to play. Of course he did; someone else has to be the adult in that situation.

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No matter the safety measures, we still live in a culture in which players become skilled at doing what is necessary to play: conning medical personnel, flunking preseason baseline testing, etc. Indeed, the greatest challenge in the concussion conundrum—from youth football to the NFL—is finding a solution to protect players from themselves. Here’s a start: if there is any question at all as to whether a player should be removed from a game due a head injury, he should be. Period.

The NFL recently released its Player Health and Safety report, which shows the number of reported concussions went down 13 percent in 2013; those from helmet-to-helmet contact went down 23 percent. On its face, this is encouraging news and validates NFL efforts to make an inherently violent game safer. However, knowing the players' mentality, we are left to wonder how many concussions might be going unreported. Interestingly, perhaps real progress with concussions will be made when the number of reported concussions is up, not down. Perhaps only then will we have truly moved past the culture of “playing through.”

Brandt’s Business Briefs

1. The 49ers' use of local police officers—now intertwined into the Ray McDonald domestic violence allegation—brings another layer of NFL team operations to light. Beyond the specifics of the McDonald case, the use of local law enforcement personnel by NFL teams is common. It is bred from familiarity, as 1) team security directors often have backgrounds in local law enforcement; 2) local police are often retained for game-day use and/or team travel; and 3) NFL-team security liaisons are usually local or regional law enforcement.  

During my time with the Packers, our security director came from a long career as a Green Bay cop. Local law enforcement members—among them the former Green Bay police chief who was later hired as the Titans' security director—accompanied us on road trips to provide extra security for Brett Favre; to be stationed on players' hotel floors; to work with airport and hotel security, and so on. And our NFL security contact was a Milwaukee detective. Although I never saw improprieties between our players and the ubiquitous local law enforcement, I can now see how, from an outside view, how there can be the appearance of a conflict of interest. An obvious reason why teams hire former local law enforcement is to leverage their contacts and relationships in the security world. The McDonald case is a look behind the curtain, showing the fine line between professional relationships and personal influence.

Jim Harbaugh (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images) Jim Harbaugh (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

2. The noise surrounding Jim Harbaugh and his future reminds me of a conversation I had with someone who worked closely with him at Stanford. In discussing Harbaugh, he noted, “He’s crazy." I laughed. He didn’t. He also said Harbaugh could schedule a meeting at an appointed time and then be on a recruiting trip across the country at that time without realizing he over-scheduled himself.

Having said that, I have always heard this about Harbaugh, both at Stanford and in the world of the NFL: While he may clash with the administration, he always has his players’ backs. He may lose the boardroom, but he won’t lose the locker room.

3. With the NFL showing some vulnerability, Congress is feeling emboldened. The FCC’s voted unanimously to end support for the NFL’s 39-year-old blackout rule, despite millions spent by the NFL to preserve the rule, including a broadcast campaign featuring Lynn Swann.

The question to me is why the NFL fought so hard on this. Unlike when the rule was adopted four decades ago, gate receipts now represent a small slice of overall team revenues, an amount dwarfed by broadcast money. Perhaps the NFL simply does not enjoy losing—at anything—and feels invincible, especially in matters involving television, the league’s lifeblood. The FCC—now threatening to take aim at Washington’s team nickname—is clearly feeling its oats, even in the NFL’s precious and revered broadcast space.

4. Three years and two months after the NFL and NFLPA announced that HGH testing would be instituted, testing finally started this week. One interesting note to the new policy: If a player or his agent makes an “untrue statement" regarding the reason for the player’s discipline, the NFL can correct that untrue statement. NFL officials have long been frustrated by players and/or agents spinning the reality of their positive test and being unable to refute them. That change is a concession from the union.

5. While perceptions abound that the NFL is in crisis, business still is booming. Buffalo, one of the league’s least valuable franchises, was sold for a record $1.4 billion. A team-friendly collective bargaining agreement is in place for six more seasons. And a tripling of NBA broadcast revenues and 50% increase in the NFL rights fee from DirecTV is an indication of soaring broadcast revenues to come. Yes, credibility is a problem right now amidst multiple investigations, but these remain salad days for NFL owners.

6. The concussion settlement process is lurching along. Former players have until Oct. 14 to notify the court of their desire to opt out of the settlement or to express written objections. Their concerns will be heard in court at the Fairness Hearing on Nov. 19. Assuming the objectors and/or the number of opt-outs do not sway judge Anita Brody—my sense is they will not—she will give final approval soon thereafter.

Much has been written criticizing the settlement and yes, the NFL’s final tab—with insurance companies footing some of the bill—is a nominal price to remove this threat to its continued prosperity. However, the reality is that the plaintiffs driving this settlement need the funds sooner rather than later. The owners used the leverage of time.  

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