Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith is currently in the midst of a three-week holdout as a result of the two sides’ inabilities to agree on contract terms.
And for Smith, it’s a fight worth fighting.
When the Bears took the Georgia great at number eight overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, many expected him to step on the field and be an instant star in the Windy City.
And that will likely be the case when both parties inevitably agree on terms, making Smith a Chicago Bear. But for now, we will all have to wait.
I’m rooting for Smith to win this fight, and not just because of his time at Georgia.
Smith, though incredibly humble and rather quiet in the eye of the public, is not afraid of controversy. Ever since his days at Macon County High, Smith has taken the unconventional route in continuing his football career at the next level.
It started with his National Signing Day announcement that saw him don UCLA gloves, signifying a commitment to the Bruins over the home-state Bulldogs in 2015. Only there was one problem, for UCLA.
Shortly after committing to the Bruins, he was informed of the news that UCLA’s defensive coordinator had bolted for the Atlanta Falcons. Smith shortly changed his mind about that decision – making national headlines – and cautiously took his time before eventually choosing Georgia a week later.
But when finally choosing to play for UGA, Smith – showing his smarts here – chose to sign a financial aid agreement rather than a letter of intent. By doing so, he protected himself from being tied to a university if Georgia had any unexpected coaching changes prior to his enrollment. If Smith wanted to change schools yet again, this allowed him to do so.
In doing this, Smith proved to America that he not only was a bright kid, but one who knew how to protect himself and his future, not allowing big businesses (like Georgia and now the NFL) to control him.
Fast forward three years later and Smith finds himself in another bind. This time, though, some $15 million is involved.
As mentioned by ESPN’s Dan Graziano, the Bears find themselves in a sticky situation here, especially since Smith, the team’s first round draft selection, is yet to prove his worth to the fans. Chicago’s bind revolves around the notion that the team desperately wants Smith to suit up and attend camp, but simultaneously must tread carefully not to say anything publicly that may impact the fans’ affection towards Smith
If the fans quickly turn on Smith before he can even play a snap, down goes the general manager’s draft credibility, potential revenue generated from jersey sales and an all around fondness of the team from an already pugnacious fanbase.
But the real question here is: Why exactly have the two sides proven so ineffective at agreeing to terms?
Well, Bears head coach Matt Nagy mentioned a couple weeks ago that the disagreements stem from a new league policy that would subject defenders to ejection/suspension if they initiate contact with their helmet, a very common tackling technique.
And, yes, Nagy was likely telling the truth – but it did not fully shed light on the real battle at hand.
(In Nagy’s defense, he likely hates this rule just as much as the linebackers do. Furthermore, it is safe to assume he was reciting what his front office instructed him to say, as it rerouted the public’s idea that either the Bears or Smith is the “bad guy,” and deflected the blame to yet another absurd NFL rule.)
But let’s not get too caught up in the new helmet rule.
The real issue generated around contract language transcribed by the Bears cunningly stating that Chicago reserves the right to void any guaranteed money to Smith if he were to miss playing time as a result of this new rule. At some point in training camp, though, that issue had been resolved and the Bears eventually agreed to change the language, therefore protecting Smith’s guaranteed money if such a scenario were to hold true in the future.
Although the Bears finally came around and changed the terms, to Smith, and rightfully so, this showed a clear lack of support for him by his new organization. Rather than standing by Smith if this new (ridiculous) rule were to come into play, the team was instead telling him they will take away his money if he is ejected or suspended by it.
In most contracts around the NFL, similar language exists. However, voided guaranteed money often stems from different, more obvious hypotheticals. (I’m talking legal issues).
That’s not always the case, though. Numerous teams insert slick terms into contracts, stating guaranteed money can be voided for any number of reasons, not just from a “football play.” Things like engaging in a fight, touching an official or excessive celebrating are common reasons for voided money. For the players, often they are so eager to begin their career and receive that first paycheck that they are willing to budge and agree to a riskier deal. In addition, often times agencies, such as CAA (Smith’s firm), seize an opportunity to fight even further, advancing their own business agendas. CAA has locked in on an ideal target in the Bears, an organization who has been struggling for the majority of the last 5 seasons and is hungry for success, likely willing to prove flexible in getting a star like Smith on the field.
When the Bears finally agreed to tailor the contract to protect Smith’s guaranteed money if this new rule were to come into play, many in the organization assumed the impasse would come to and end. But after further evaluation, CAA continued to fight, seeking protection for Smith for a wider range of conduct that could result in voided money – not just misconduct during a “football play.”
Throughout the league, these contracts are the norm. But that does not mean it’s right. And for Smith, he’s once again showing that he’s willing to fight against the norms, not allowing money-motivated individuals to push him around and nickel-and-dime him.
A large number of linebackers were taken in this year’s NFL Draft, yet they have all signed with their respective teams. Why is that? Front offices are sneaky – that’s no secret – but usually you will find they are willing to go to some extents to get their newly drafted players to camp. If transforming guaranteed money into voided money is important to the Bears, than so be it. But is it more important than taking the more ethical route and allowing Smith to begin his career with his new team, something that will benefit both parties immensely?
After some research conducted by Graziano, he found that fellow Georgia great Leonard Floyd, who is also on contract with the Bears, has terms in his deal that says his guarantees can be voided if he “engages in conduct reasonably judged by Club to adversely affect or reflect on the Club.” This includes saying anything to the press or on social media that may cast a dark cloud over the Bears organization. This allows the organization full freedom to decide how to dish out discipline that could lead to a void in guaranteed money.
This is a practice that is widely used by NFL owners to take advantage of its players.
If a player commits a crime or breaks the NFL’s policies on drug use, nobody argues money should be voided. But at what point do reasons for loss in pay go too far?
Smith’s request for broader protection of his guaranteed salary may not be a common one, but it is certainly not an unreasonable one.
As reported by Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune:
Seven other teams have executed contracts that include clauses protecting a first-round draft pick’s guaranteed money if he is suspended for an illegal hit. Only four of 32 teams have executed contracts with the broader behavioral protections that Smith seeks, one source said.
Rookie contracts are often unfair to the athletes in ways, and the NFL Players Association recently took action against the owners. The NFLPA actually organized an internal investigation last year to determine if the owners were in breach of the CBA with such exploitation. Since, agents have been notified to be more alert and stubborn against sneaky contract language that could void guaranteed money for a broad range of reasons.
Smith and CAA, simply put, are not having it.
Now, whether or not Smith and his agent come out on top of this battle really does not matter in the long run of NFL players, present and future, taking a stand against power-hungry owners. It is certainly not a new battle, but it is a necessary one.
The voided money was definitely a chapter of the story, but it was not the whole book. Good for Roquan for not being pushed around by the Bears front office.