On December 2004 when the Falcons signed Michael Vick to a 10-year, $130 million contract, owner Arthur Blank proclaimed: “He’s a Falcon for life.” Vick’s contract, though, is not nearly as binding as the Falcons owner’s words make it out to be. If, theoretically, the Falcons wanted to trade or release their embattled quarterback, his contract would not necessarily preclude it. The Falcons have given no indication of wanting to unload Vick, who has been involved in a series of off-field controversies. But from a contractual standpoint, what would happen if the team got to that point with him?
NFL contracts, unlike those in Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, are not fully guaranteed. What that means is that football players are assured of receiving only the portions of their contracts that are stipulated to be guaranteed – generally signing bonuses in most cases. Vick’s contract included $37 million in guaranteed bonuses. The remainder is in base salary, which increases each year, payable only as long as he remains on the team.
The NFL’s standard player contract also stipulates various grounds under which clubs may terminate the contract. One such stipulation is: “If player has engaged in personal conduct reasonably judged by Club to adversely affect or reflect on Club, then Club may terminate this contract.” If a contract is terminated under that clause, the player has the right to file a grievance and have an arbitrator decide whether the club acted reasonably. The standard contract also stipulates that if an injured player is released, he’ll be paid for the balance of the season in which the injury was suffered.
While NFL teams usually can terminate player contracts at will, they cannot escape the salary-cap ramifications of those actions. If the NFL were to suspend Vick for one or more games, he would not be paid but his salary would count against the cap. The Falcons would be allowed an exemption to replace him on the roster for the length of his suspension. When the Falcons made Vick the NFL’s highest paid player in December 2004, the potential – even hypothetical – impact of cutting ties were on no one’s radar back then. Laughing that day about the mega-dollars in the contract, Blank told the media: “It should be officially understood and known now that I work for Michael Vick.” Well at the rate that the Vick legal case is going, Blank will probably have to sell extra home supplies at Home Depot to make up for the salary cap ramifications.