Sports Negotiations – Contentious conundrum of NFL contracts

I was never formally trained in the art of negotiation prior to becoming a general manager in the National Football League.  There was really nothing in my professional background or experience that might lead you to believe that I would ever be successful in selling a roster opportunity in exchange for multi-millionaire dollar deal.  Most might argue that this responsibility would be best left up to attorneys, wise in the ways of spinning situations and scenarios in their favor without letting the facts or the truth get in the way of results.

From my own experience

Despite my own lack of legal litigation know-how, I was able to help piece together six rosters that won the fifth most games in the National Football League (2002-2007) and spent the twenty-sixth  most money (19th in guaranteed signing bonus) in collecting those 58 victories and 3 playoff appearances.  When I left the Denver Broncos at the end of the 2007 season, overwhelming support came from the very industry that I supposedly was in direct conflict with as general manager and primary negotiator of the club – the agents.

How could that be?  Why would the very men & women that I battled off the field for every dollar of cash reserve and inch of cap space want to wish me well?  Isn’t contract negotiation the game within the game?  Perhaps more than any other professional sport the financial ramifications of contract negotiation is studied by the media and fans as closely as the entering player pool of potential prospects at offensive guard.  Many of the top decision makers in the NFL look at contract negotiations as a competition as well, meant to be won or lost with slick maneuvering over a “paper” playing field.

Two sides to every story

It’s imperative to understand the position that each side fights to hold; the agent in his singular representation of the player and his own commission interest, and the GM in his stance on behalf of the club and its broader view of constructing a 53 man roster defined under the constraints of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  The individual vs the collective.  Options vs needs.  The agent vs the general manager.

So some feel it necessary to “fight fire with fire” by placing attorneys, even former agents in charge of protecting the greater financial good of the thirty-two clubs.  I suppose that’s understandable.  Most are owned by men and women that clawed their way to the top by skillfully working the system to their own advantage with hardnosed negotiating in the business world.  At times the ends may really justify the means in order to “win” in the money match.  Or do they?

Taking the high road

I struggle to understand the adversarial relationship between player and club that tends to manifest right up to the point where pen meets paper.  It’s really not necessary.  Yes, both sides have their own agenda and different maps leading to the same destination, yet I feel the club should ALWAYS take the high road – regardless of the situation.  Your reputation does most certainly precede you.  Players do have options and have every right to exercise them.  The manner in which a general manager or contract negotiator goes about his or her business does indeed permeate throughout the player/agent community.

Maybe over the course of the hundreds of contracts I negotiated over the years an agent might have gotten the best of me.  Who cares?  I tried to treat each and every one of them in the manner in which I wanted to be treated – with courteous respect and mutual understanding of the flexibility and limitations placed on the individual situation.  Building a reputation through this philosophy wasn’t taught to me at an Ivy League Law School, nor was it developed through constructing my own multi-million dollar enterprise.  It was just the right thing to do.

In the end it’s about procuring the player and the approach you take sets the tone for the level of trust for years to come.  There are ripple effects to everything you do as a general manager.  It doesn’t take a law degree or Forbes 500 to figure that out.

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