The Carson Palmer Lesson

It is a well-documented fact that sports fans in Cleveland have had their hearts ripped out at least once or twice by the teams and players they support.

However, Cleveland fans may soon be consoling their cohorts in southern Ohio, whilst commiserating over the loss of a franchise player who wanted to take his talents elsewhere.

Earlier this year, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer asked that the team trade him.  The team denied this request.  Since then, rumors have circulated that Palmer will stop at no lengths–including retirement– to get out of Cincinnati.

Palmer was the first pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, when the Bengals selected him as their first-round choice.  Thereafter, Palmer originally signed a seven-year contract with the Bengals, which included $14 million in bonuses with the potential to earn up to $49 million.  When Palmer originally signed with the Bengals, the team had been the NFL’s worst team for twelve years.  Yet, in his second season, Palmer was able to lead the Bengals to the NFL Playoffs.

In 2005, Palmer signed a six-year contract extension, which granted Palmer the opportunity to earn $118.75 million in salary and bonuses throughout its course.  After signing the extension–and only two years into his playing career–Palmer commented, “Hopefully this is the last place I’ll end up playing.”

The NFL Lockout ended on July 25, 2011.  Teams were allowed to begin trading players on July 26, 2011.  On the first day of the NFL trade period, Bengals owner Mike Brown reiterated that the Bengals will not trade Palmer.

If this were a first year law student’s midterm, Brown would have scored close to the top of the curve with his explanation as to why the Bengals will not trade Palmer.

Brown explained, “Carson signed a contract.  He made a commitment.  He gave his word.  We relied on his word.  We relied on his commitment.  We expected him to perform here.  He’s going to walk away from his commitment. We aren’t going to reward him for doing it.”

It is possible that Brown, who is acting as the Bengals’ interim General Manager, will break with his stance and trade Palmer.  However, for the time being, it looks like the Heisman Trophy winning, first pick of the 2003 NFL Draft will retire after just seven seasons of play.

This retirement wouldn’t be the result of injuries incurred from playing one of the most physically demanding sports, but rather, because of a contract.

It is not entirely clear why Palmer is adamant about exiting Cincinnati.  However, it is possible that only achieving two playoff berths and enduring three losing seasons over the course of seven seasons has something to do with it.

Given this, how could this contractual issue have been avoided?

The clearest solution is the avoidance of lengthy contracts.

Two years into the league and at the ripe age of 26, Palmer essentially agreed to retire a Bengal.  With that level of experience and maturity, Palmer arguably did not have the wherewithal to consider factors such as the team’s ability to continue to perform and his ability to exit the team if it failed to do so, when signing a nine-year contract.

For the common American, it is hard to sympathize with the predicament that Palmer got himself into by signing a nine-year $119,750,000.00 employment contract.

However, consider this:

You are fresh college graduate.  Not only that, you have graduated at the top of your class from Harvard.  You have countless companies seeking out your skills.  However, this is an alternate universe and you don’t select your first employer.  Rather, they select you.  And furthermore, it being an alternate universe, the employer which selects you is the employer which consistently performs at the bottom of the market for your given profession.

However, two years later, you have learned from your new employer and have enjoyed your position.  You’ve even achieved some success in your position and helped your company achieve some of its goals.  You are young and not jaded.

In the coming years, however, things begin to change at your company.   You are no longer succeeding at the level you used to and changes aren’t being made to help you do so.  Your company hasn’t achieved any of its goals in several years.  You’re wondering if what you heard when you were being recruited is true–that this is an organization that can never “win” the market.  Your career has reached a place of stagnation.  You feel like you’re going nowhere.

What would you do?

You’d likely realize that your skills and talents aren’t being properly utilized.  You’d come to understand that the environment you’re in isn’t allowing you to succeed at the level you know you’re capable of.  So, you’d get on LinkedIn, surf over to and network with other similarly-minded professionals, in an effort to find a new position matching your career goals.  In a normal economy, shortly thereafter you’d be walking through the doors of a new employer’s office.

However, by signing a nine-year contract, Palmer essentially rid himself of the ability to seek a new employer.  In fact, his nine-year contract paradoxically granted his employer the right to prevent other employers from seeking out Palmer’s talents.

Palmer’s current conundrum should be a lesson to agents when advising their young clients during contract negotiations.  Agents must advise their clients of the pros and cons involved in signing lengthy contracts.  Issues to take into consideration when weighing the pros and cons, include the front office’s philosophies and the team’s ability to cultivate and develop talent.

In advising young clients facing offers of lengthy contracts from teams, Palmer’s story should serve as a key example and guide.  Palmer’s $119,750,000.00 contract, which ranks as the 35th largest sports contract of all time, was likely a beacon of promise to the then-young player.  However, that same nine-year contract is the reason why the now 31 year-old, healthy, former number 1 Draft Pick might be forced to hang it up.

And that, my friends, is how a contract can force a player to retire.

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