Kam Chancellor Returns…

Thursday September 24th, 2015

The Kam Chancellor holdout was as rare a player-club dispute as there is in the NFL: A player withholding services under his contract into the regular season. While we see many players dissatisfied with their contract situations—believe me, there are many more throughout the league than we hear about publicly—the vast majority of disgruntled players capitulate well before the real pay begins (training camp pay is simply per diems). With this history and lack of real threat from players, most teams barely shrug at offseason discontent. Chancellor has done what the overwhelming majority of players would never do: take his protest into the regular season, when the “real money” is triggered.

The Issue

As I wrote last month Chancellor felt a level of betrayal from his team. He believed that in agreeing to his extension in 2013 he allowed the Seahawks some latitude, not squeezing every last dollar in negotiations and giving the team room to secure rising young teammates. He then watched as teammates negotiated contract extensions that, in Chancellor’s eyes, appeared less of “taking one for the team” than “getting all they can get.” Chancellor’s problem is not with his teammates, who got what they could get; it is with the Seahawks, who handed out those top-tier contracts.

As someone who has been on both sides, and having seen these disputes from many angles, I understand Chancellor’s point but would have had several arguments against it. First, Chancellor was paid at the top of his position, strong safety, and the market has not advanced since that time. Second, Chancellor and his agent negotiated a five-year deal (with three years remaining), choosing the longer length that came with the higher bonus and guaranteed money allocated to that term. Chancellor and his agent could have easily negotiated a shorter term deal—with less bonus and guarantees—especially if he felt he was “taking one for the team.” Third, Chancellor could have taken less early money—bonus and first-three-years cash—and loaded more into 2016, the year and salary ($5.1 million) that seem to be the focus of his attention.

In the scheme of which side is more “to blame” for this uncomfortable contract situation, it is hard to have a lot of empathy for a player only 40% of the way through his contract.

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Irrational or Principled?

I would think that the Seahawks, and probably other people close to Chancellor, certainly made these arguments to him. Thus, depending on your perspective, Chancellor can appear either foolish and irrational or incredibly principled. I will say this: It takes a truly secure and self-assured player to fight this fight into the regular season.

Admit it, you thought Kam Chancellor, the guy with three years remaining on his contract and with no leverage to speak of, would fold and report to the Seahawks by the start of the season. (I certainly did.) And, more importantly, the Seahawks had to think he would. In a situation where the leverage is stacked against the player to submit, Chancellor refused to tap out at the time when 99.9% of all players would have. This is irrational or principled, depending on your perspective.

Photo by Rod Mar for Sports Illustrated

The Leverage Game

Although the reaction from many was that Chancellor gained leverage with the Seahawks’ 0-2 start, including a season-opening loss in which his replacement was burned on a crucial play, the reality is that—stay with me here—the poor start may have actually hurt his leverage.

The Seahawks would certainly not want to be prisoners of the moment and make a knee-jerk response to the losses with a reactive offer. Negotiations—or whatever this was—are not that reactive. When drastic circumstances happen, the side that would seem to have lost leverage usually digs in and says, They expect me to call, but I’m not calling. Business is business, but it’s always personal.

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The Precedent Paradox

We know the precedent line here: If the Seahawks had rewarded Chancellor with three years remaining on his contract, there would soon be a line of players and agents braying at management’s door wondering where their parallel treatment is. Precedent is the obvious and well-worn team argument for situations like this. (I would know. I used it hundreds of times.)

However, in talking to sources close to Chancellor, the Seahawks did engage in negotiations; if, of course, we can call a discussion of shifting money “negotiations.” The team was willing to shift $3 million of scheduled compensation from 2017 to 2016, taking next year’s number from $5.1 million to $8.1 million and taking the 2017 number from $6.8 million to $3.8 million.

Chancellor declined the shifting proposal, rejecting what his camp called a “band-aid” resolution for a deeper problem. They chose to take their chances on revisiting this negotiation again either later in the season on next year, when he will have two seasons left on his contract and there is precedent for the team having addressed contracts with that length remaining (Marshawn Lynch).

And then there are the fines. That tally had reached roughly $1.6 million, including (1) daily fines for Chancellor’s boycott over the past seven weeks and (2) potential prorated signing bonus recovery. As to whether the Seahawks are exercising their right to recover those monies, I received the same terse and concise reply from both sides of the negotiation: “That’s confidential.”

One can surmise what one wants from that comment, but my sense is that there had to be some level of quid pro quo for Chancellor to return; waiving collection of that money was it. The Seahawks may enforce a small, perhaps very small, percentage of those monies to say that they did for precedent sake, but my sense is most, or even all of those fines have been forgiven.

As for enforcing fine money generally, several team executives I spoke with said they wish the language was less optional than it is. There is a belief among teams that if fines and bonus forfeiture for holdout players was automatic—and not at the discretion of the team—this situation and any others like it would not happen. Players that are valuable to the team know that teams will not press this area when given the choice.

As to the precedent of the Seahawks engaging in “shifting” negotiations with a player holding out, I am not sure there really is any precedent concern. Will players actually hold out to have money shifted around in their contract? Michael Bennett, another Seahawk frustrated with a contract that has three years remaining on it, is already on record saying he would not hold out. Again, it takes a rare player to do what Chancellor is doing.

• IN DEFENSE OF KAM CHANCELLOR:  Seattle’s star safety was sorely missed in the opener as he sat locked in a contract dispute with the defending NFC champs. Robert Klemko on why his holdout deserves more consideration than angry fans are willing to give it.

Postscript

The common narrative on the Chancellor holdout will be “he caved,” and it is certainly easy to see that on the surface. However, I tend to take the longer view on these things. I would want to know how much of the fine money—I sense it could be all of it—was forgiven and, more importantly, how this contract situation eventually resolves.

If the Seahawks were willing to give Chancellor $3 million more than scheduled next year while he was in the midst of a holdout, they will give him plenty more than that in an offseason negotiation. And, as noted above, they will now be dealing with a player with only two years left on his contract, a territory they have navigated before.

In the end, I still think the overriding takeaway is that Chancellor actually staged a level of protest that went into the regular season. Despite annual bluster from players and agents about their contracts, how many players are strong enough in their convictions to actually do this? The last multiple-game, in-season holdouts I can remember, Joey Galloway and Emmitt Smith, were in the 1990s! Precedent is not precedent if it happens once a generation.

Chancellor will be welcomed back by coaches and players and all will be forgiven; he has been a popular player and that will not change. Whether irrational or principled, Chancellor did something few players will ever do. Despite the short-term surrender, his stance could still pay off with a positive result down the line.

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