Blame the NFL system, not Vernon Davis or Alex Boone holding out

Ezra Shaw

Fans may not like it, but Vernon Davis and Alex Boone are using a necessary business tactic. Fans may demand that they honor their contracts. But there is a need to recognize that players too often become the villains in business disputes, but that's how the NFL's business model works.

As long as I have watched football, there have been holdouts in the NFL. Players who are unhappy with their contracts decide to sit out of mandatory offseason workouts. It seems to be part of contract negotiations in the NFL. If players do not get a new deal before the season starts, we have seen players miss games.

Now that Alex Boone and Vernon Davis are officially hold outs, the conventional wisdom surrounding NFL holdouts is in the forefront of the holdout discussion. Although every holdout has its own specific set of circumstances, most fans vilify the players as greedy, ungrateful and demand they honor their contracts.

Boone and Davis both have two years remaining on their contracts. 49ers fans have seemingly been more understanding of the Boone holdout. I suspect it is due to his compensation being ranked 38th on the list of offensive guards in the league. Boone is scheduled to earn $2.25 million this season and $1.45 million next season as the the team's starting right guard. Still, even though he agreed to work for these wages, people seem to believe Boone deserves more. Frankly, so do I.

Davis, on the other hand, is the third highest paid tight end. He is scheduled to earn a base salary of $4.75 million this season and $4.35 million in 2015. And, fans collectively mutter that Davis should "honor the terms of his contract" even though many do not hold Boone to the same criterion.

If fans do not believe a player deserves more, that is a fair argument. But, it is a bit naive for fans to revert to the conventional wisdom of players honoring the contract. Why?

Let's look at Frank Gore, for example. Gore is arguably the best pass blocking running back in the NFL. If we rewind to 2011, Gore was largely connected to the 49ers' offensive success. At that time, considering what they were doing with Alex Smith, it gave Gore a tremendous amount of leverage, even though he had a year left on his contract. How did the holdout work out for Gore? Pretty well.

The 49ers agreed to enter into good-faith negotiations for a new deal after he agreed to report for training camp. Shortly after reporting, Gore and the 49ers reached a three year extension through 2014 and his salary was bumped up as well. Gore got paid and he can thank his holdout.

There are few examples of holdouts not working as well as the player hoped, but good players who hold out usually get rewarded. Boone and Davis can potentially lose $30,000 per day for every day missed. But, a player who has leverage and holds out usually gets rewarded.

It is a gross oversimplification to say, "A player has a contract, and a contract is a binding agreement. Therefore, an employee should honor that agreement."

I understand that argument, but it ignores the basic ideology of NFL contracts. While it's true holdouts are an employee not fulfilling his contract, it's also true that the employers in the NFL are not obligated to honor their end of the deal. Under most circumstances, teams can cut a player anytime and not pay the player what the contract says.

I have further heard "the contract allows the team to back out of it, so the team is still honoring it." But the system has always been stacked against the NFL players. Players hold out today for the same reason they did 20 years ago, i.e., it's the only leverage they have if they are unhappy with a seemingly one sided contract. Contracts in other industries are usually be bilateral, meaning both parties have control in the agreement.

In the NFL, however, most are unilateral. Most of the power goes to one party or the other. With the exception of the star player earning the multi-million guaranteed contracts, most teams have little to lose when signing players. If the player does not pan out or gets injured, the teams knows they can cut the player.

Alternatively, players risk quite a bit (namely their health) every time they step on the field. Players never know when they will get hurt, but the risk of injury is outrageously high. At some point, 40% of NFL players will suffer some form of injury (either on the practice field or on game day). Yet, most players in the league play under non-guaranteed contracts. They sign unilateral contracts and risk everything for the chance at their dream. But, once a player outplays his contract, it becomes more likely we see a holdout, typically because of the high likelihood of injury.

NFL contracts are very different than MLB or NBA contracts. Most of those contracts are guaranteed (at least for injury) and you rarely see a holdout. Why? Simply, when the team honors the contract, so does the player.

I am not quite sure why fans seem to be critical of players and are quick to point out the athletes are millionaires. Yet, those fans defend the owners, who are billionaires? Let's face it, this is business. And, both the employers and employees are interested in making money while they can. While there are a few exceptions, NFL contracts generally favor the team. And, in any industry, when the other side eventually obtains greater leverage, you will see the other side attempt to re-negotiate terms. And, this is the crux of what happens in the NFL system.

This is especially true for athletes who sustain injuries. Unless the contract is specifically guaranteed for injury, the player can just be cut or forced to restructure. Consider the case of Mario Manningham last year after he was injured. If Manningham would not have restructured, he would have been cut by the 49ers. 49ers had the leverage and they used it against Manningham to get him to restructure. Nobody was telling the San Francisco 49ers to honor Manningham's contract when they forced him to restructure. So what gives?

Players almost never hold out when they have guaranteed money remaining on their deal. If the player has little or no guaranteed money and/or has outplayed his contract, the system allows players the ability to exercise his leverage and holdout. It is the nature of the NFL contract. We expect it from the team and it should not surprise us when a player decides to holdout.

Holdouts can be risky. Already, Boone and Davis have forfeited workout bonuses, and been fined for their minicamp absences. As long as a player understands and accepts the possible cost of a failed holdout, I see it as their choice. It is their career, not ours. The 49ers front office has a shrewd business side, so players willing to holdout must know what a holdout will entail.

At this juncture, I do not see the 49ers willing to even talk to these players until they report for camp. As was the case with Gore, before the team will engage in contract talks, the player was required to return to camp as a measure of good faith.

We do not know what Boone or Davis are demanding, so it is impossible to know if the 49ers would be willing to enter into contract talks. However, based on past holdouts, it is reasonable to assume the 49ers would require attendance at camp as a measure of good faith before attempting any type of resolution.

As it stands today, it looks as Boone is willing to take the holdout as far as it requires. Davis is clearly a key component to the 49ers offense and possesses some leverage. He could play the good soldier and hope that the 49ers treat him right. He could have another Pro Bowl season with more sprains and bruises, and hear whispers about how much tread is left on his tires. Or, he could choose to be fined $30,000 every day for his absence. In any scenario, it is the player who puts his career on the line. And, in the NFL, few players get rewarded for being nice guys.

The people who ultimately make their money are the ones who understand the business. But, if a player decides to hold out, he can't just do it for a few days or weeks. Players like Boone and Davis have to be willing to go all the way. And, fans should prepare ourselves for that possibility.

As for me, I do not have a problem with contract holdouts in the NFL. In a game where every play can be an athlete's last, and when a player can get cut at just about any time because an owner doesn't have to honor his end of the contract, I fully understand players doing the same -- pursuing what they believe they rightfully deserve.

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