I was a sophomore at Morgan State University in 1969 when Curt Flood wrote his historic letter to baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn announcing that he was taking on MLB’s long-standing reserve clause.
Dear Mr. Kuhn:
After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play baseball in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia Club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the Major League Clubs my feelings in this matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Free agency has become the highly anticipated way of the world in all pro sports. Fifty-four years later, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is challenging another entrenched practice in a behemoth sports entity. Jackson has not written a dramatic letter, as Flood did, but he has served notice to the NFL that he is taking on the NFL’s latest hill to die on: fully guaranteed contracts.
In sports media, Jackson’s battle has been cast as a tug-of-war between a player and a team. This is much more: It’s a battle of owners versus inevitable progress.
Last week, the Ravens slapped Jackson with a nonexclusive franchise tag that guarantees Jackson $32 million for the upcoming season. They could have used the exclusive franchise tag, but that would have cost the Ravens $45 million. At worst, it may cost them their franchise quarterback and at the very least may cost them more money than they wanted to spend. The Ravens’ move allows Jackson to search for a better offer from another team, which Baltimore can either match or allow their quarterback to walk in exchange for two first-round picks.
This is a calculated gamble by the Ravens, though many critics lauded Baltimore for making a shrewd move. The Ravens are either assured or hopeful that no other team will break ranks and give Jackson the contract he wants. The general assumption is that Jackson wants a fully guaranteed contract, though some recent reporting suggests that Jackson is not insisting on fully guaranteed compensation. (Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta told at least one agent early last season that Jackson wanted a fully guaranteed contract that surpassed the $230 million in compensation the Cleveland Browns awarded Deshaun Watson. Jackson, of course, has said nothing.)
In any event, the fight over guaranteed contracts — regardless of Jackson’s commitment to the battle — is a pivotal moment in the existential tensions between NFL team owners and the athletes who lease them their bodies. The NFL is a brutal meat grinder of an industry, one in which players are more disposable than in any other sport.
One executive I spoke with pointed out incredulously that Jackson is asking the Ravens to do something that none of his peers have asked their teams to do.
That is precisely the point. That is exactly what he is doing. The same executive wondered why Jackson would throw down such a gauntlet while legendary predecessors Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes have gone along with standard business, taking gigantic compensation, but not demanding that all of the compensation be guaranteed.
It’s the same reason that Flood decided that enough was enough and challenged the reserve clause. Conventions are not always a good thing. Not having guaranteed contracts protects owners, not players.
It’s likely true that had Watson not gotten a fully guaranteed deal from Cleveland, Jackson would not have had anything to point to. But Cleveland did give Watson that deal and effectively set a precedent. Media has routinely called the Watson deal “an outlier” and the Browns’ co-owners Dee and Jimmy Haslem have been publicly criticized for handing out the deal.
But the NFL is a business of supply and demand, and there is a demand for elite-level quarterbacks who have the potential to lead a team to a championship. That’s why Cleveland went after Watson. Fellow owners are likely upset with the Haslems for upsetting the marketplace and not going along with the other NFL partners to crush attempts at securing guaranteed contracts.
What I appreciate about Jackson’s approach is that he is not selling himself short. He knows his value, injury or not. He is a 26-year-old generational talent, a former NFL MVP with at least 10 years of production ahead of him. He’s gambling that there is a team owner desperate and committed enough to winning an NFL title who is willing to negotiate a contract that will give Jackson far more than Baltimore is willing to pay — even if the contract is not fully guaranteed.
The Indianapolis Colts come to mind. The Colts’ first-year head coach, Shane Steichen, was the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Steichen watched firsthand as a so-called running quarterback Jalen Hurts led Philadelphia to the Super Bowl. Steichen knows how to use Jackson: surround him with offensive weapons, build a solid defense. With Jackson in Indianapolis, the Colts would generate the type of excitement the franchise has not seen since quarterback Andrew Luck.
Perhaps Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is counting on Colts owner Jim Irsay not to break ranks and sign Jackson to a lucrative contract. Don’t count on that: Irsay is the same owner who pulled Jeff Saturday out of the broadcast booth and made him the Colts interim head coach. You don’t think Irsay would make a run at a 26-year-old superstar quarterback?
One executive admitted that Watson’s fully guaranteed contract should be the norm, that elite quarterbacks should have their contracts fully guaranteed. The problem is that none of the elite quarterback or their agents have used their leverage to force ownership’s hand. Brady didn’t. Manning didn’t. Brees didn’t. Rodgers didn’t. Wilson didn’t. Mahomes didn’t.
Each of them fell into line and embraced the franchise’s thinking that giving the team a financial break allows the franchise to acquire better players. Funny, whenever owners want concessions from players, they talk about “the game.” When players want concessions, the owners resist by saying it’s “business.”
I often wonder why high-leverage quarterbacks never used their leverage to demand fully guaranteed contracts. Could it be they lack the resolve because they are often friends with owners and executives and want to do repeat business with their other clients? The agents don’t want to alienate front offices, so it’s not in their best interest to test those relationships.
Jackson is criticized for not having an agent. His mother, who is his manager and business partner, is the most trusted person in his life. No need to worry about conflicts of interest or leaks.
Besides, it wouldn’t matter if the prophet Moses was negotiating for Jackson. The Ravens have made it clear that they will not negotiate a fully guaranteed contract. Not yet anyway.
I began by comparing Jackson going after guaranteed contracts to Flood attacking baseball’s reserve clause. Is that fair? By 1970, Flood was 32 years old and a highly decorated player. He had already won two World Series championships with the St. Louis Cardinals. He was a three-time Gold Glove winner. He was a champion.
Jackson is still working on his résumé: a league MVP in 2019, a two-time Pro Bowler who has one win in four playoff appearances.
But his most important contribution is the one he is currently making: fighting for guaranteed contracts. The next generation behind him, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert, may now be emboldened to demand fully guaranteed contracts and dare their respective teams to let them become unrestricted free agents.
Would they dare?
Critics say that Jackson is the NFL Players Association’s dream test case and a poster child for what the association has always wanted: an unrepresented dynamic young quarterback to establish a new fully guaranteed paradigm for NFL players. Some believe Jackson should have taken the Ravens’ original offer because the upside is minimal, and the downside is deep.
Is Jackson a martyr? I think for NFL players and some fortunate franchises, Jackson can be a beacon that lights the way. Depends on how you look at it.
In Baltimore some will ask, “What will the Ravens be without Jackson?” The better question is, “What will they be with him?” This is the question the Colts could be asking. It’s the question the Browns asked when going after Watson.
It’s all a matter of what a franchise wants. Do the Ravens want to remain in lockstep and maintain the resistance to guaranteed contracts, or do they want to win?
This much is clear: Without Jackson, the Ravens’ mountain to climb becomes quite steep.
And that’s a guarantee.