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When Dwayne Haskins was drafted 15th overall by the Washington Football Team (“WFT”), the former Ohio State standout was expected to make a big impact. His performance thus far has not lived up to the hype. He was released in just his second season, ultimately appearing in 16 games, completing 60.1% of his passes for 2,804 yards with a 12:14 TD:INT ratio.
The on-the-field performance, however, was not the reason for Haskins’ release. It is now well-documented that Haskins’ was fined $40,000 and stripped of his captain status after social media photos emerged showing the quarterback partying at a nightclub without a face mask. The $40,000 fine is the most any player has received this season for such violations. This was Haskins’ second violation of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols this season, and the circumstances of his release could tee up a legal battle between Haskins and the WFT for the remainder of his contract.
Haskins’ rookie contract was a four-year, $14.4 million deal. More than $10 million has already been paid, but approximately $4.27 million remains “guaranteed” over the 2021 and 2022 seasons. The language of the contract could provide the WFT a couple of avenues for avoiding their obligation to pay.
One provision, according to a copy of the contract obtained by Pro Football Talk, says that a “Player shall be deemed in default of the Contract if Player takes any action that Club determines, in its reasonable discretion, undermines the public’s respect for . . . Player’s teammates, Club’s ownership, coaches, [or] management.” The contract goes on to say that, should the player default on his obligations, any remaining guarantees “shall immediately be deemed NULL AND VOID.” (Emphasis in the original contract). It is likely that the WFT will argue that Haskins’ repeated violations of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols have undermined the public’s respect for the above-named parties.
Haskins and the NFLPA will argue that because his contract was fully guaranteed, he should be paid the remaining $4.27 million. The contract, however, is guaranteed for “injury, skill, and salary cap.” Washington will argue that he was cut for none of those reasons, but for personal conduct that adversely affected the team. The team is thus positioned to argue that Haskins contract does not guarantee him the remainder of his salary in light of his conduct and COVID-19 protocol violations.
Precedent and Future of Personal Conduct Releases
There is a recent precedent for this argument. When the Ravens released Safety Earl Thomas after a fight with teammate Chuck Clark, he was guaranteed $10 million in base salary for 2020. The language the Ravens used to terminate Thomas’ contract was key to their refusal to pay, saying that they released him for “[engaging in] personal conduct reasonably judged … to adversely affect or reflect” on the team. Thomas filed a grievance, which has yet to be resolved, through the NFLPA to collect the $10 million in salary.
Washington is on track to use the same argument in a refusal to pay the remainder of Haskins’ contract. However, this argument has raised eyebrows and will be fought vigorously by the NFLPA. When a player is released, the team is required to provide written notice of the reason for its decision. The notice form has five different boxes that can be checked including lack of skill, salary cap purposes, lack of proper physical condition, failure to disclose a physical or mental condition during a physical, and personal conduct. The Ravens and WFT presumably checked the box for personal conduct when releasing Thomas and Haskins.
Since personal conduct is not listed under the skill, injury, and salary cap guarantees of most NFL contracts, the Ravens (and likely the WFT) are attempting to use this language to void the remainder of the players' “guaranteed” contracts. The NFLPA will be aggressive in their fight against setting this precedent. Although these teams may have legitimate personal conduct justifications, future teams could use this method as a loophole to void overpriced and underperforming players’ contracts under the cloak of personal conduct violations.
It remains to be seen whether the WFT will put up a fight over the $4.27 million left on Haskins’ contract. With allegations against team owner Dan Snyder piling up by the week, the team could decide it is worth the money. If they do, it will be accompanied by the second grievance filed this season over the same “loophole”. Importantly, the WFT is in a stronger position to avoid paying than the Ravens are. First, Thomas’ contract did not contain the broad language which allows the team to void his contract because of his conduct or actions. Second, Haskins’ violations are in the context of the COVID-19, where the NFL and teams are taking drastic measures to put a solid product on the field while ensuring the safety of players. Repeated violations of these protocols would likely be met with less leniency during the grievance process than traditional conduct violations. The NFLPA, however, will aggressively oppose any actions that could allow future teams to supersede the “guarantees” of player contracts.
John Nucci is a 2L at Penn State Law and President of the Sports and Entertainment Law Society. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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