On Sunday morning, before the still-healing Buffalo Bills kicked off their regular-season finale against the New England Patriots, several NFL media members tweeted that the Bills were going to pay Damar Hamlin's full contract amount.
But so it's crystal clear: It isn't the full amount for the remainder of the four-year, $3.64 million contract Hamlin signed in 2021 after he was drafted in the sixth round, it was the full amount of his 2022 salary. And since NFL players generally get paid over the 18 weeks of the regular season and Hamlin had a cardiac arrest on the field during Week 17, it amounted to Buffalo making him whole for one more week.
Because his contract contained a clause that if he went on injured reserve, he'd get a pay cut. So by the Bills selling a few grossly overpriced beers on Sunday they were able to scrape together the $20,556 the team so benevolently agreed to pay to make up the difference. For a player whose heart had stopped for several minutes just a few days earlier while he was in service to their organization.
And many on social media hailed Buffalo as heroes.
But here in this space, it is just another reminder of the grossly inhumane way team owners view players, and how ineffective the NFL Players Association is at advocating for its members.
Circle back a couple of paragraphs: By being placed on injured reserve, a clause was triggered in Hamlin's contract that cut his salary nearly in half. So instead of going into cardiac arrest the way he did, had he torn an ACL in, say, the first game of the season, his salary as he rehabbed would have been just 55 percent of what it had been had he remained healthy and on the 53-man roster for the entire regular season.
It should make you angry that an injury leads to a massive pay cut. But it should infuriate all current and future NFL players to know that their union even allows such a provision to exist. It is virtually inevitable that professional football players will suffer a major injury in the course of doing their jobs, and yet players can have their pay slashed by nearly half when that occurs.
Damar Hamlin's devastating emergency caught the country's attention, far beyond the usual fans of the league. It has also highlighted the perilous conditions these players work under.
You can argue that no one is making them take part, and that is true.
That does nothing to change the fact that the risk players take every time they are on the field versus the reward they receive via salary and benefits are not equal. Not even close.
As former NFL cornerback and current ESPN analyst Domonique Foxworth noted on the "Mina Kimes Show" last week, risk should be commensurate with reward, but there is a cap on the financial reward for players, in the form of team salary caps.
And there are also metaphorical ones: There is no rule that says the league cannot fully guarantee all contracts; it just chooses not to do so. Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson and others have reported that plenty of people around the NFL are none too happy with the Haslam family, owners of the Cleveland Browns, after they signed Deshaun Watson to a fully guaranteed five-year contract. Not because of who Watson is and what he was repeatedly accused of, just so we're clear, but because none of them want that $230 million deal to be a precedent-setter.
There is nothing close to a cap on what team owners earn; there's no cap on what head coaches earn. Nathaniel Hackett was such an abject disaster as head coach of the Denver Broncos he didn't even last one full season but he may still receive every penny of the four-year contract he agreed to with Denver. No defibrillator or emergency intubation necessary.
The NFLPA agreed to a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement in the spring of 2020, a year before the prior one was set to expire. It passed with just 51.5 percent of nearly 2,000 player votes, and in our opinion those who voted against its passage were correct to do so. It is not equitable in any way, shape, or form for the players. You know, the people who actually provide the product.
The economics are galling enough — incredibly, revenue split isn't even 50-50, with the 2,000 players' salaries come from just 48 percent of the revenue, and there are a host of exemptions for what goes into that pool — but the benefits are paltry as well.
Players still do not become vested for a retirement pension until they have been credited with three full seasons. Since Hamlin was in his second season, he isn't vested, and that means barring the Bills, the league and/or the NFLPA stepping in and providing it, he is not eligible for the post-career five years of health insurance that vested players receive, nor is he eligible for the pension vested players receive once they turn 55. (Many degenerative physical or mental problems only worsen over time, after that immediate five-year insurance window closes.)
As for the players who do not suffer cardiac arrest live on prime-time television, they're out of luck. Nearly every week there are non-vested players who suffer major injuries, and they get nothing beyond an injury settlement. Any lingering issues they may have from whatever wound they incurred, or whatever support they need from the effects of traumatic brain injury, they're on their own to pay for them.
Unsurprisingly, even for those who spend years in the league, getting what they're owed is incredibly difficult. Last August, Wes Welker, a 12-year veteran and two-time All-Pro who is now a coach with the Miami Dolphins, posted a letter to Twitter. It was from the NFL Player Benefits Disability Plan, and in short stated that Welker's application for line of duty disability was being tabled because his medical records did not specifically say that surgeries he'd undergone were for injuries sustained while playing in the NFL.
At least a dozen other retired players commented under Welker's post about having had the same problem. Offensive lineman Adam Snyder, who played for a decade, mostly with San Francisco, said he'd been denied three times; a second offensive lineman, Uche Nwaneri, wrote, "Just so you know, they will try to deny you at every turn." Nwaneri died last month; he was 38.
There were also comments to Welker that highlight another huge problem for NFL players: public opinion. There were supportive comments to be sure, but also others who callously disregarded Welker's frustrations or commented that NFL players are not special. These are similar to the sentiments expressed when players are in CBA negotiations. Foxworth, who was on the NFLPA's executive committee and ultimately served as NFLPA president from 2012-14, recalled that in the lead-up to the 2011 CBA negotiations he was hopeful that players were unified to battle team owners. But as fan sentiment crept in, with some calling players greedy or saying they earn enough and disparaging them for wanting better, that solidarity became tenuous, impacting the NFLPA's leverage.
The millions of dollars donated to Hamlin's foundation was heartwarming, and the groundswell of support for a young man so few people had heard of before one terrifying night in Cincinnati has helped lift Hamlin and his family and teammates. What can be just as, if not more, impactful going forward is showing support for players when it's time for them to negotiate with NFL franchise owners. The team owners are billionaires. All of them. And they can own the team for generations. The players are not, and not nearly as many of them are millionaires as public perception would have us believe. And if they're very lucky, they'll get to play until they're 30, with years still ahead of them to try to live the best life possible.
The Players Association is always facing an uphill battle at the table because it's much easier to get 32 people on the same page than 2,000, or even a majority of 2,000. But unless and until they can, en masse, see that they may have to take some short-term losses (i.e. a couple of game checks during a strike) for long-term gains, nothing will ever significantly change.
They deserve so much better. It shouldn't take one of their own nearly dying on the field to band together and demand it.