The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Every NFL player should support Lamar Jackson’s fight

Patrick Mahomes got a massive contract from the Kansas City Chiefs, but it wasn’t fully guaranteed. Lamar Jackson reportedly has a different goal. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
6 min

Almost three months after he collapsed on an NFL field following a routine tackle that stopped his heartbeat and left a “Monday Night Football” audience stunned, Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin walked the halls of Congress on Wednesday. Hamlin did so to support a bill calling for defibrillators to be furnished to schools in an effort to save thousands of kids every year who suffer the sudden cardiac arrest that nearly killed him.

Afterward, a video from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell played, praising Hamlin’s advocacy and putting the weight of the league behind the legislation.

Goodell’s support was admirable. And duplicitous.

If the commissioner — and the league’s owners, for whom he acts — believed so deeply in ensuring the well-being of their players, they would not have had to devise a rare modification to safeguard Hamlin’s contract and any extraordinary care he may need. And they wouldn’t behave now with collective obstinance to Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson’s reported demand for a fully guaranteed contract. Both are related.

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Hamlin’s plight highlighted what little care there can be for players who toil in a sport that, as its union reminds, has a 100 percent injury rate. When Hamlin dropped to the ground in that game the day after New Year’s, he was in the second season of his four-year rookie contract that was ballyhooed to be worth $3.64 million. But the money wasn’t all guaranteed. Worse, unless Hamlin played three seasons, he wouldn’t be vested in the league’s benefits program that could provide care for him after such a frightening event. And because he was drafted after the third round, his contract included something called a split. If he was unable to play and placed on the injured reserve list, Hamlin would receive far less than his full salary.

Only with a potential tragedy unfolding before millions of viewers, melting Hamlin’s teammates and opponents at that moment into tears of fear, did the league cut a deal to salvage Hamlin’s full pay for last season. In other words, it guaranteed his contract against the injury he suffered, which appeared in the moment to be catastrophic.

That is what Jackson is standing for, protection of salary against injury in a sport in which everyone — particularly a player such as Jackson, who handles the object of 11 other players’ violent fascination, the football — is certain to be hurt. The only question is to what degree? And that is why every other player should stand in solidarity with Jackson. His fight — which he revealed recently prompted him to request the Ravens trade him, presumably to a team that would assure his wage — isn’t selfish. It is self-sacrificing.

Though Jackson is under contract with the Ravens for next season, his stance puts his immediate future in jeopardy. To be sure, other owners revealed their thoughts in recent days about bringing him into their fold under his terms.

“As an owner, I do not believe in fully guaranteed contracts,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “I think that a percentage is one thing, but from what I’ve seen from the NBA and baseball, I don’t see it as a positive competitively. For me, for the good of the game, boy, I don’t believe guaranteed contracts would be good for our game at all. At all.”

It’s not about the league, of course, unless you’re one of the owners — who, by the way, are guaranteed checks before the regular season kicks off from the broadcast partners who help them maintain their billionaire status. Guaranteed contracts are about the players, the 1,700 or so laborers who suffer the concussions that lead to brain injury and all manner of problems later in life. The ones such as Hamlin, whom the league has turned into a feel-good story because he survived while playing the NFL game.

It is about Jackson, an MVP quarterback, an electrifying performer who became the first quarterback with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons and who made the Ravens again a perennial title contender.

Unable to shed the NFL brand, though, Jackson got hurt along the way. He suffered a knee injury last season during the 13th week and never returned to play. It happens. It’s the NFL.

What Jackson’s fight illuminates is the intractability of ownership.

Lamar Jackson announces he has requested a trade from the Ravens

“Looking at it objectively, I’d say there’s some concern over how long [he can] play his style of game,” Atlanta owner Arthur Blank told media at the owners’ meetings on Tuesday. “Hopefully a long time … but he’s missed five, six games each of the last two years. Each game counts a lot in our business.”

Each game counts even more to the well-being of players, short term and long. Guaranteed contracts aren’t about enrichment as much as they are about decency — which the league has feigned in its treatment of Hamlin.

Unfortunately, NFL players often have been as much an enemy to their welfare as the owners. This offseason, for example, a slew of players seem to be signing one-year contracts that benefit only ownership and protect the players against virtually nothing. They haven’t followed the lead of their brethren such as Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who after a couple of seasons in Washington playing under a so-called franchise tag — a one-season designation that pays a singular player on a team a salary representative of the best at his position — refused to sign with any team that didn’t guarantee his pay. Minnesota did. Instead, almost every player has continued to sign what amount to publicity deals, such as Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes’s stunning 10-year agreement worth near half a billion dollars, for which $140 million is guaranteed against injury and some of the rest is contingent upon this, that and the other.

Players need to realize that guaranteed contracts in other sports aren’t legislated. They weren’t handed over altruistically. They were born out of persistence.

As Matthew Epstein observed last year in the University of Colorado Law Review, “While the potential for elite players to receive a fully guaranteed contract structure is not entirely out of the picture, the reality is that most NFL players — paid closer to the league minimum than elite player salaries — are focused on negotiating a higher minimum salary, not on changing the NFL’s norm of nonguaranteed contracts.”

Now is the time.