Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Poison Pills and NFL Free Agency: The Issue Hardly Anybody is Talking About

One of the biggest stories of the National Football League off-season is unfolding before our eyes and hardly anybody in the "mainstream" media is covering it. Not ESPN, not CNNSI, not Fox Sports. Until just today, only the good folks over at Pro Football Talk have even discussed the connection between "poison pills" and "collusion." Scary words, especially for NFL owners and teams, but until now, the controversy has not garnered little attention.

That ended today when the Orlando Sentinel reported that the NFLPA (the National Football League Players Association for those unfamiliar) is requesting the NFL Management Council look into dealings between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins as it regards a trade made earlier this month for wide reciever Wes Welker. Or, maybe it didn't, if the Boston Herald is to be believed.

In any case, we'll get back to Welker and his specific complaint in a moment. But, first, some helpful background. Last season, the Seattle Seahawks named All-Pro offensive guard Steve Hutchinson their "Transition Player." This meant that while Hutchinson was a free agent, any offer he signed could be matched by Seattle. The Minnesota Vikings signed Hutchinson to an offer-sheet which cleverly included a clause which said that if Hutchinson was not the highest paid lineman on his team (he wouldn't have been in Seattle because of a previous contract with tackle Walter Jones) his entire contract became instantly guaranteed. Seattle, unwilling to make such a radical promise, let Hutchinson go.

Not to be out-foxed, however, Seattle responded by returning the favor. They signed Minnesota restricted free agent Nate Burleson soon after and included an even more radical poison pill. That clause said that if Burleson played more than 5 games in the state of Minnesota during any one year of the contract (which he would do if the Vikings matched the offer) the contract (worth $49 million in total) would also become instantly guaranteed, just like with Hutchinson.

Needless to say, the NFL front office was not happy with the use of such clauses, but during this off-season, despite renegotiating and extending the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, nothing was done to end the use of the poison pill.

Except, the poison pill has not been used at all this off-season. Restricted free agents have been signed to offer sheets, but not one contract includes use of a poison pill. The folks over at Pro Football Talk's NFL Rumor Mill are rightfully suspicious of the sudden absence of the pill. After all, if a team wanted to sign a free agent, why wouldn't they use such a pill to ensure success and prevent the player's former team from matching the offer-sheet. It doesn't make sense, not to Pro Football Talk, not to me, and now, not to the NFLPA.

The controversy regarding Welker is a perfect example. Earlier in the off-season, it appeared the Patriots were set to sign Walker to an offer-sheet worth $38.5 million over seven seasons. They would lose a second-round draft choice by doing so, but if they wanted Welker (which they clearly did) all they needed to do was include a Burleson-like "poison pill" into the contract, and he'd be theirs.

That isn't, though, what the Patriots did. Instead of signing Welker to an offer-sheet, which would have cost them a 2nd round draft pick if they had included a poison pill and Miami declined to match, they chose to trade for him instead, giving Miami both a second and a seventh round draft pick. On its face, this seemingly made no sense. They could have had Welker for just a second-round pick, so why give up the extra draft choice?

The deal became even more suspicious when the Patriots announced their new contract with Welker was only for $18.1 million over 5 seasons, not the $38.5 million earlier reported. If the Patriots and Dolphins got together, on their own, and agreed to avoid the headache and cost of using the poison pill by simply arranging a trade for Welker, which would allow the Patriots to sign him at a lower price (since the larger contract was in part inflated as a way to prevent the Dolphins from matching it), that would be collusion and against the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Which is why Pro Football Talk has been talking about the deal for more than a week now, and why the Orlando Sentinel reported today that the NFLPA similarly wanted more information.

"They may have violated the CBA rule that says one club can't offer the player's former team anything that would [sway] that team from matching their offer," the source said. "Anti-collusion [rule], that's another thing that may come into play."

The source added that the NFLPA's interest in the matter stemmed from complaints made by Welker's agent, Vann McElroy, regarding the devaluation of his client because of possible violations.

The Boston Globe reports tonight that there is more smoke then fire regarding the Sentinel's report, and that no action is likely to be taken. Which wouldn't be a surprise if the NFL truly wanted to eliminate use of the poison pill. As free agency continues and the off-season progresses, this story will hopefully gain traction, and more mainstream outlets will report on it. I'm going to do my own research for a term paper in my Sports Law course here at the Law School and I'll keep updates coming in the blog as they develop. (And yes, for those keeping track at home, that's two papers this semester on sports -- The NFL Poison Pill and the previously discussed Major League Baseball/DirecTV Extra Innings move. Now If I can just find a similarly themed sports topic for my Presidential Power seminar, I'll be all set. I'm open to suggestions.)

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