On Friday, NFL Network reported that Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers were "closing in" on re-negotiating their contract so he could become the team's starter. Reportedly, the team has opted not to start Kaepernick this season because he will receive his 2017 salary of $14.5 million if he cannot pass a physical due to injury on April 1, 2017. Barring injury, the 49ers can cut Kaepernick prior to April 1, 2017 with little financial recourse.
The new contract's terms reportedly eliminate or significantly reduce the amount Kaepernick would receive in 2017 if he is injured in 2016, while also allowing Kaepernick to be a free agent after the end of the season.
Although the deal is not done—and Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reported Kaepernick's agents have not yet reviewed it—the 49ers have been attempting to restructure Kaepernick's deal since the offseason. It sure sounds like the 49ers are demanding Kaepernick re-negotiate his contract before allowing him to play. If that's the case, and the deal comes together, it will set a terrible precedent for athletes in a league where few players have guaranteed provisions in their contracts.
Kaepernick's contract, signed in June 2014, already was considered remarkably team-friendly. Although the reported dollar-figure jumped off the page—$126 million—anyone familiar with the NFL knows that number is meaningless. In fact, with escalating annual base salaries and most of the "guaranteed" money structured as "injury-only," the team could essentially cut him without much penalty after any given year—as long as he wasn't injured.
As bad as this is, it's better than what most players have; most NFL contracts have no injury clause at all.
Although Kaepernick's proposed new deal has the "option" of hitting free agency after the season, that was going to happen anyways. After all, the whole reason the team wasn't playing him was that they don't want to be on the hook for his 2017 salary.
Even if Kaepernick was benched in good faith, management has essentially required him to take a pay cut before letting him be promoted. Benching a player until he negotiates a more favorable contract is not only borderline extortion, but also deeply concerning from a labor management perspective.
There's no direct precedent in NFL history, but a very similar case unfolded with one of the most famous players in sports. In 2003, Alex Rodriguez was set to join the Boston Red Sox in a blockbuster trade for Manny Ramirez—the two were baseball's only two $20 million-a-year players. But the deal was contingent upon Rodriguez reducing his historic $252 million contract with the Red Sox, which he had agreed to do.
The deal was good to go, but the Major League Baseball Players' Association (MLBPA) blocked it. Allowing employees to give up contractually guaranteed money in exchange for something else sets a bad precedent. It gives management countless ways to claw back salary years after the deal is signed, which is both unpredictable and harmful to union members' interests as a whole.
At the time, even Rodriguez acknowledged this. "In the spirit of cooperation, I advised the Red Sox I am willing to restructure my contract, but only within the guidelines prescribed by union officials," Rodriguez told the AP. "I recognize the principle involved, and fully support the need to protect the interests of my fellow players. If my transfer to the Red Sox is to occur, it must be done with consideration of the interests of all major league players, not just one."
The MLBPA's actions had a profound effect on baseball history—not only did A-Rod sign with the New York Yankees instead, but Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordonez, and Nomar Garciaparra were all involved in the nixed deal or its domino effects—but there's little debate the union made the right call.
Usually, if a baseball player gives up something contractually, such a waiving a no trade clause, the MLBPA expects that player to get something in return, such as the triggering of a contraction option, a contract extension, or a bonus. But Kaepernick is not getting any of that.
Kaepernick's case also goes even further than A-Rod's, because it involves not a trade, but a promotion. We will promote you, 49ers management is saying, but only if you restructure your contract.
Imagine if teams did this to every second or third string player. NFL contracts are notoriously fickle and teams can cut players with almost no financial penalty, so players need to play in order to prove they're worth the next year on their contract, or a new deal altogether. As a result, most of them would likely be willing to risk a short-term pay cut to get on the field and prove themselves. This might make sense for any individual player, but as a group, it's clearly against their collective interests. If Kapernick's deal goes through, why wouldn't teams try to make it the new normal?
We saw how the MLBPA stepped in to protect their players in the A-Rod case. When asked about Kaepernick's case, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said, "I have not seen any details yet so until I do we will refrain from comment."
A follow-up email asking if the NFLPA has any general stance on players re-negotiating a contract to give up guaranteed money did not get a reply. But it has happened before. In 2015, Tom Brady re-negotiated his deal with the Patriots to reduce the amount of guaranteed money he received for basically nothing in return. At CBS Sports, former agent Joel Corry spoke to an AFC front office executive about the restructured deal: "I've never heard of a player voluntarily giving up guaranteed money, especially for so little in return." Corry went on to write, "The NFLPA probably isn't happy with Brady's willingness to be so accommodating towards the Patriots with his contracts but would never an [sic] express a negative opinion publicly about the contract dealings of such a prominent player."
The NFLPA has spent millions of dollars in the past year to litigate against what was perceived as a "troubling precedent" when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Brady for four games over deflated footballs, which cost Brady $235,294 in game checks. Whether the union views Kaepernick's situation—in which he is willfully forfeiting possible millions of dollars in exchange for playing time—as equally troubling remains to be seen. But it's hard to imagine how the NFLPA could look at it any other way.