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  • Writer's pictureZack Slogoff

How the Damar Hamlin Situation Will Hopefully Impact the Next NFL CBA

Updated: Jan 17

As the Buffalo Bills’ medical staff rushed onto the field to attend to safety Damar Hamlin, the entire country watched in dismay. Football is America’s most culturally treasured competition, but it has always come with implicit health and safety risks. Few had ever watched live as a situation like the one that occurred on January 2nd unfolded during the Monday night game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.[2]


The natural response to the frightening nature of Hamlin’s collapse seemed genuine and clear, as personnel around the league and media hoped and prayed for him to regain consciousness.[3] Fortunately, Hamlin woke up in his Cincinnati hospital bed, mustering the strength to write down on a piece of paper, “Did we win?”.[4] By now, most people have heard the fabulous response by the doctors tending to Damar that yes, he had won the game of life.[5]


Yet, it appears that Hamlin may not be the only one who has won something. The incident shed light on an incredibly important issue in the National Football League (NFL) regarding provisions for player safety and will likely have a large impact on the next Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the league.[6]


Many former NFL players and other concerned advocates are hopeful that Hamlin’s heart attack will change the way the league treats applications for disability pay.[7] While Hamlin is fortunate enough to be taken care of for life due to promises made by league officials (likely related to the notoriety the situation received through media coverage), not every player is that lucky.[8] The NFL has been criticized before for its retirement fund policies, especially for players who have dealt with catastrophic injuries.[9] Players in the NFL are subject to working conditions that may seem archaic to many. Ironically, these stipulations stem from the CBA negotiated by the NFLPA in 2020, which will run for 10 years until 2030.[10] As the nation’s most lucrative sports league, some of these policies may seem odd for the NFL and its players


To start, most of the money players negotiate for in their contracts is not guaranteed.[11] Often, if a player is cut due to injury or underperformance, their contract evaporates.[12] In contrast, Major League Baseball structures its player contracts differently. For example, in 2019, Bryce Harper signed a $330 million contract with the Phillies.[13] The entire sum of that contract is guaranteed, meaning Harper still gets paid his full salary even if the team cuts him in year 12 if he is not producing as the club would like him to.[14]


In contrast, in 2020 Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a $503 million deal, but “only” $141 million of the contract is fully guaranteed.[15] While still a large sum of money, the guaranteed value makes up only about 30% of the agreed upon contract. Outside of the star players in the NFL, the guaranteed sum of money in an average NFL player’s contract is below the theoretical value about 90% of the time.[16] For players not as notable as Mahomes, such as Damar Hamlin, this produces extreme concerns as the player has limited negotiating power and could be cut at a moment’s notice and left with no source of income.


Additionally, getting injured in the NFL usually leads to pay cuts. Hamlin’s contract is worth $3.64 million over four years, due to earn him $825,000 this season.[17] His contract, however, contains a clause that allows the Bills to pay him $445,000 if he ends up on the injured reserve list.[18] This is a 45% salary cut for a man who suffered a life-threatening injury while performing his professional duties. This unfortunately appears relatively standard for injured players within the league. In a sport where injuries are so frequent, it makes sense why the teams and management would want these kinds of provisions in players’ contracts--but this does not make it fair or just by any means, especially considering how much revenue each team brings in.


Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the new CBA is the pension program.[19] Players in the NFL are eligible for the NFL pension plan after playing for three seasons, which is lower than the 4-season requirement in the last CBA (for eligibility purposes a season means three or more games on a roster).[20] Other benefits can become available depending on length of service, such as severance pay and five years of health insurance after retirement.[21] Players can start drawing their full pensions at age 55, and the new CBA will reportedly see the average annual pension rise to $46,000.[22]


Healthcare is an extremely prominent issue given the implicit threat of injuries such as concussions, where effects may not be felt until years down the line.[23] Hamlin has only been in the league since 2021, meaning if his collapse had not garnered the attention it had, he could have been out of the league with no pension plan to deal with any tangential issues stemming from the impact of the hit that left him in cardiac arrest.[24] This is both desolate and alarming considering how many players are forced to leave the league at a moment’s notice due to injury.


Fortunately, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to pay Hamlin’s salary of $825,000 this season; and if he needs more, he will most definitely receive it from supporters.[25] However, for other players who experience similar injuries, they are subject to the 2020 CBA’s process until it can be renegotiated in 2030. While the NFL is without a doubt one of the most powerful organizations in the country, the harsh reality of these conditions brought to the forefront by Hamlin’s scare will hopefully give the NFLPA some heightened negotiating power when the time comes.


References: [2] Rivera, Joe “Damar Hamlin Updates: Bills Safety Speaks to Teammates, Family after Breathing Tube Removed as Recovery Continues.” Sporting News, (Jan. 11, 2023) https://www.sportingnews.com/us/nfl/news/damar-hamlin-injury-collapses-field-hit-tackle-cpr-ambulance-bills-bengals/hayshufiopjoaeuomfxagwt4. [3] McCarriston, Shanna “Damar Hamlin Injury: Bills Resume Football Activities Wednesday for First Time since Teammate's Scary Scene.” CBSSports.com, (Jan. 4, 2023) https://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/damar-hamlin-injury-bills-resume-football-activities-wednesday-for-first-time-since-teammates-scary-scene/#:~:text=The%20Bills%20only%20have%20a,game%20against%20the%20Cincinnati%20Bengals. [4] Rivera, supra. [5] Id. [6] Young, Jabari. “Damar Hamlin's Story Shines a Light on pro Football's 'Cruel' Record on Disability Payments.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine (Jan. 16, 2023) https://www.forbes.com/sites/jabariyoung/2023/01/14/damar-hamlins-story-shines-a-light-on-pro-footballs-cruel-record-on-disability-payments/?sh=535be7845eb2. [7] Id. [8] Id. [9] Id. [10] Dart, Tom “Injury Pay Cuts and Limited Leverage: Five Brutal Truths about NFL Contracts.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media (17 Jan. 2023), https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/jan/17/nfl-football-contracts-guaranteed-money-pensions-salary-cap. [11] Id. [12] Id. [13] Spotrac.com. “Bryce Harper.” Spotrac.com, https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/philadelphia-phillies/bryce-harper-8658/. [14] Dart, supra. [15] Id. [16] Young, supra. [17] Scull Jr., Harry “Damar Hamlin Reportedly to Get Full Salary on Injured Reserve; Veteran Agent Calls Split Contracts 'Disgusting Tool'.” Buffalo News (8 Jan. 2023), https://buffalonews.com/sports/bills/damar-hamlin-reportedly-to-get-full-salary-on-injured-reserve-veteran-agent-calls-split-contracts/article_72eea334-8f5c-11ed-97f9-efe994f973d5.html. [18] Id. [19] Young, supra. [20] Id. [21] Id. [22] Id. [23] Dart, supra. [24] Young, supra. [25] Id.

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