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Ward and Owens

Hines Ward is ending his holdout and reporting to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp, in time for all Pittsburghers to take a deep breath about Season Two of Big Ben Roethlisberger and to crow, again, about how Hines is no Terrell Owens.

We teachers of Contracts should be paying close attention to the Ward and Owens holdouts, because they illustrate some important lessons about contract law.

Both men, Hines Ward and Terrell Owens, catch the football for professional football teams. Both men are gifted athletes. Both men are paid astronomical sums of money to play a game. And both men are badly underpaid relative to the NFL “market” for their position. So despite the fact that each of them is under contract with his team (the Steelers in Ward’s case; the Eagles in Owens’s case), each has refused to report to training camp until a new contract is negotiated. (Late today, Ward announced that he is returning to camp without a new deal, presumably in reliance on the team’s promise to give him a better deal.)

There the similarities end. Some differences are clear-cut. Ward is in the last year of his contract; Owens is in the first year of his. Owens is older than Ward, so whatever deal Owens strikes is likely to be his last.

Some differences are more intangible, however, and this is where the two situations get interesting:

Ward is a class act. A team player. Through his selfless play on the field and his professional demeanor off of the field, he has built up an enormous reservoir of goodwill among Steeler fans — which is to say, just about the entire Western Pennsylvania region and a good number of people (many of them Pittsburgh expats) beyond. He’s cashing in that good will at precisely the right time — when his market value may never be higher, and when the team’s need for him to be a leader on and off the field is enormous. A year ago, he made noises about holding out but didn’t — when the team promised to rework his contract before the ’05 season started. He has avoided the media during the holdout, other than to repeat the mantra that he has no desire to play out his existing deal and test the free agent waters next year. He wants to retire as a Steeler; he just wants the team’s respect.

Owens . . . well, I don’t need to characterize the guy; the media circus is more entertaining than most NFL pre-season games, even when the first teams are playing each other. He’s holding out in the second year of a seven-year, $49 million deal. He works hard on the field (he may have single-handedly kept the Eagles in last year’s Super Bowl), but he taunts opposing players, shows off for the fans, and leads the media wherever he’d like to take them. He publicly disparages his teammates and his coaches. Whatever goodwill he generates gets dissipated nearly as quickly. The Eagles may cave here — the team doesn’t have a good history with this sort of thing — but there’s no reason they should.

For Contracts teachers, the two cases illustrate some basic but important notions about the relational dimensions of contracts — how a deal is often the beginning of a negotiation, rather than its conclusion, and how a contract may be modified in good faith. Sure, long-term contracts are supposedly about locking in risk, about hedging the future. In context, however, that isn’t always so; no one who signs a professional sports contract, especially in the NFL, has any ethical obligation simply to play out its term — and the legal obligation to do so is pretty thin. These deals are flexible frameworks for relationships, rather than terms for measuring performance.

My guess is that Ward is more likely than Owens to see the holdout succeed, if only because Ward seems to have done everything right: he has public sentiment on his side, and he’s timed the holdout well relative to the back end of his career. He’s never been a whiner. He is clearly underpaid, and the holdout doesn’t have the feel of a holdup. Owens seems to have done everything wrong: at best, the public has mixed feelings about the guy, and he’s got both terrible timing. He may believe that he earned more money via his Super Bowl performance last Spring, but his subsequent whining — and his history as a malcontent — undercut any leverage he may have earned. Terrell Owens has an impressive case of seller’s remorse.

Then again, as they say in the NFL, on any given Sunday . . . .