What Does A Contract Mean, Anyway?

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Helio Castroneves dropped a bombshell at Team Penske this week, when he put the team on notice that he did not plan to drive for them in 2011; unless his contract was re-worked. Despite the fact that the team stuck by him while he went through his well-publicized tax-evasion trial, as well as during his tirade three weeks ago in Edmonton; Helio apparently feels that his body of work, which includes three Indianapolis 500 wins while with the team, is enough to hold the team hostage and make them cave in to his demands. It promises to be a tumultuous off-season at Team Penske.

Of course, the situation I just described is completely false, never happened and would be considered heresy and totally absurd within the IZOD IndyCar Series paddock. Yet, such absurdities are commonplace and completely accepted in the much more popular world of the NFL.

When ESPN is not following Brett Favre’s latest text message, they are intent on reporting every last move of disgruntled New York Jet Darrelle Revis and his failure to report to camp – even though he is under contract to the Jets.

Here in Nashville, we heard the drama of Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson for months, how he just couldn’t play for only $550,000 this season. Granted, that is a paltry sum for an electrifying back who became only the sixth player in NFL history to rush for over two thousand yards in a season last year – but that is his signature at the bottom of the contract that he agreed to in August of 2008. Plus, he failed to mention throughout all of his moaning, that he also got a $7 million signing bonus two years ago. The Titans didn’t meet his demands for a $40 million dollar contract, but they did give him a nominal bump in pay with incentives for this season. He has shown up for camp, but still takes every opportunity he can, to spout off about the big payday he’ll receive next year – when the Titans will probably give him a new deal.

Then, there is the embarrassing saga of former Titan & Tennessee Vol and current Washington Redskin Albert Haynesworth. In spring of 2009, Haynesworth spurned his former team, the Titans – the one that stood by him when he chose to inexplicably stomp on the unprotected head of Dallas Cowboy Andre Gurode in 2006 – by signing a $100 million contract with the Redskins only four hours into free-agency. After a very mediocre season in 2009, Haynesworth isn’t happy that new coach Mike Shanahan is switching to a 3-4 defense. He failed to show up for any off-season “voluntary” OTA’s (organized team activities) or mini-camps and vowed not to show up for training camp, in an effort to get the team to trade him. Shanahan has called his bluff and Haynesworth has become a punch line around the league as he failed a conditioning test, time after time.

What is it about most major sports that makes it perfectly acceptable for an athlete to hold teams and fans hostage, yet would be totally unheard of in other sports? Can you imagine the uproar that would occur if the hypothetical situation I described with Helio and Team Penske actually happened? Roger Penske would fill Helio’s seat so fast; he wouldn’t know what hit him.

When teams had a choice of engines, can you imagine a driver pulling a Haynesworth and telling a team owner that he refuses to drive for the team if they contemplated swapping from a Toyota to a Honda? Somehow, I just can’t see Scott Dixon – after winning the 2003 championship with a Toyota – telling Chip Ganassi that if he changes engines, he’s walking.

This mindset isn’t limited to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Drivers in NASCAR are pretty content to not make waves. If they aren’t happy, they cut a deal in the off-season and leave. The same goes for just about any racing series.

I’m not suggesting that all things are all bunnies and rainbows, as Mrs. Hospenthal is fond of saying. Drivers can be prima donnas too, but with fewer seats than available drivers – the law of supply and demand favors the team owners, so the drivers know where to draw the line.

But since we’re dealing in hypotheticals here – what if there was an abundance of good quality rides and very few drivers? Would we see drivers threaten to sit out a season if their contracts were not re-worked? Realizing how sponsor-driven this sport is and how image conscious the entire industry is – I think not.

Getting back to our local product, Chris Johnson – let’s assume that after collecting his $7 million two years ago, along with his annual salary which was to be $550,000 this season; that his career took a different turn and his first two seasons were below expectations. Do you think he might be a little angry if the Titans wanted a portion of their money back? Of course, the players union will say that the player runs the risk of being cut and never seeing the money in a contract that is back-loaded.

This type of foolishness isn’t limited to the NFL. It happens in the NBA, Major League Baseball and even sometimes in the NHL. However, racing seems to be the last bastion in sports where a contract is pretty much a contract – on both sides. Why is that? What is it that is different about auto racing when it comes to honoring and fulfilling a contract?

I’m not saying that a contract has never been broken in racing. Just ask Dale Coyne. But by and large, it is a rare occurrence when it happens. That’s one of the many reasons that I am more passionate about this sport, than others. All of the participants just seem to care a little bit more.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “What Does A Contract Mean, Anyway?”

  1. A driver like Helio won’t find the same deal elswhere.

  2. Jack in NC Says:

    Quite possibly the difference is that racing is significantly more dangerous than any other sport, and that brings a level of seriousness to the table. More likely, though is the realization (on both sides of the contract) that racing simply doesn’t have the fan base to support such antics. Look how many fans left major league baseball when they had their contract disputes. Many (myself included) never came back, but there are still enough to support such histrionics. I doubt if racing could sustain such losses and continue as a viable sport.

  3. I think it might be money. Is there any driver who–on the track–makes 18 million a year like some other athletes?

    I’ve never understood why a contract is a contract except in the professional sports world where a contract is meaningless.

  4. Apples & oranges, George.

    The (arguably) best American basketball player would never bounce from team to team, signing 10-day contracts here & there and sometimes missing games.

    The (arguably) best American IndyCar driver WOULD, though. He currently is.

    Point being, if you’re even lucky enough to GET a contract in IndyCar, you lock that thing up & hold on for dear life. It’s science.

  5. Savage Henry Says:

    Racing is one of few (the only?) sport where the athlete has to pay the team to be able to play (er, drive). Remember CART teams telling Jeff Gordon “show me the money and I’ll show you the seat”? If you have a solid, paying job in racing you keep it. There are a million other drivers waiting in the wings.

    Regarding the danger argument, until thinking about it at a race a couple months ago, I always considered racing to be a terribly dangerous sport. However, which sport produces more serious injuries every year – racing or football? Football for sure. Mike Conway had an awful wreck at Indy and had a badly broken leg and a broken back. Severe leg, neck, back, and head injuries are so commonplace in football that they hardly get mentioned. That’s why someone like Chris Johnson is holding out for huge money now – by the time he’s 30 his body (and career) is going to be destroyed.

    Surely, in the past racing was more than dangerous, it was deadly. However, with the safety improvements that have been made, fatalities are very rare and you also don’t typically see a lot of career-ending injuries. Of course, this drives up the supply of drivers which exacerbates the supply/demand balance.

    I think I went on a tangent here at some point. Sorry.

  6. Football is a money maker. It is also a very debilitating on the human body. Until the NFL garuntees contracts, Chris Johnson and Derelle Revis should be paid what there worth on a year by year basis. They could get injured and cut next week and get zero. Chris Johnson would have been better off not playing at all for 550K and risking his body for that one year. He is worth 15-20 times that. He should play for someone who will give it to him. To top it all off, there is no salary cap this year so you are as an owner not even robbing Peter to pay Paul. You can pay them both. As for Albert, just a dirtbag.

  7. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Speaking of Helio…. Even the Miami Homestead Speedway website, has a
    thumbnail of Helio grabbing Charles in charge by the lapels….
    http://www.homesteadmiamispeedway.com/
    Truth of the matter regarding auto racing contracts, particularly the IRL, there just are not that many places to jump to. The limiting factors are driving talent and the number of teams capable of putting you in a winning car. Generally any move, other than to Penske of Ganassi are going to be of the lateral type or worse.

  8. billytheskink Says:

    Aside from what is said above, I think the traditional way that most drivers have made most of their money, sponsorship and winnings, is a big reason why drivers don’t generally engage in public contract disputes.

    For most drivers at any level of racing, and especially in Indy Cars, sponsors can be fickle, it takes a lot of hard work to obtain them, and even when the driver is a big part of landing a sponsor, they are often wedded to the team. Most drivers know not to rock the boat where sponsors are concerned, and sponsors probably take a pretty dim view of public contract disputes.

    This may be more true in NASCAR or in the Indy Cars of the past than today’s Indy Car, but the driver’s share of race prize money is often a bigger part of their compensation than their salary. Drivers will move from team to team when they believe it will give them a better chance of winning not just because they like winning, but also because they like the money that is paid out to drivers who win. A winning driver with a $1 salary CAN make a lot more than a backmarker being paid six figures.

    And aside from this, there really isn’t much precedent for such public contract disputes in racing. Someone has to get the ball rolling, even team owners can set an example (which they don’t because sponsors and manufacturers almost always hold more cards then they do).
    While Chris Johnson, has dozens of cases as player precedent to justify his demands, he’s really not acting all that different from his team’s owner. Bud Adams played the same games with the cities of Houston and Nashville.

  9. Dad always said “Racer is just a another five letter word for whore”.(read into it whatever you can) First heard it in the sixties, and with each passing decade, it has more meaning.

  10. Fred Hurley Says:

    Two words: collective bargaining. In the major stick & ball sports, those players have certain rights/abilities to walk away or renegotiate deals. In racing, despite the occasional drivers association, there’s never been a successful labor organization on the same scale as in, say, baseball.

  11. There are those types of things going on in F1 and MotoGP a lot, look at the Valentino Rossi move to Ducati. However, especially for Indycar, with only 2 and a half teams capable of title contending, it’s less likely to get out of control. And, you’re right, in all forms of racing there are less seats than racers, so most racers are aware and careful about not alienating themselves from the teams.

  12. It seems to me the notion that a contract is an intractably binding document is only true as a sort of Norman Rockwellish social ideal. Businesses breach contractual obligations on a regular basis. Virtually every time two companies find themselves in court it is because one or the other is claiming a breached contract, and the other has most likely determined that the worst legal outcome is better for their company than abiding by the contract.

    Players not respecting contracts just happen to get more popular press, and are more easily characterized as greedy and selfish.

  13. “But since we’re dealing in hypotheticals here – what if there was an abundance of good quality rides and very few drivers? Would we see drivers threaten to sit out a season if their contracts were not re-worked?”

    Perhaps.

    But in the very real world of aspiring drivers there is an abundance of talent out here competing for jobs, and the results often don’t account for the talent of the drivers involved. So many never really get a shot at the bigger series’ and there’s simply no wiggle room for those who ARE there. They simply can’t pull the nonsense r/t contracts that the stars in other sports do. You can run down a very extensive list of drivers who certainly are/were talented enough, not only to drive Indy cars but to compete for wins against the leading shoes of today’s championship, that were either forced to move on to another series or are unemployed today. Oriol Servia, unemployed. Jon Fogarty, forced to another series, as was Buddy Rice, Memo Gidley, Alex Gurney, Jonathan Bomarito…so Kanaan, Dixon, HCN, et al, know, this deal is a gift, so-to-speak. Ya, they worked hard to get ‘here’, as did the stick and ball guys to get ‘there’. But there are fewer deals over here…how many guys on an NFL roster x how many teams in the league? Now, how many full time Indy Car drivers in the series?

    Then there’s the fact that no NFL/NBA team is going to look twice at someone with no actual ability who shows up with a dumptruck full of money and says “I want to be on your team”. When a driver without talent can purchase their way into a major-league series (not just a recent phenomena), unlike the NFL or NBA – other drivers know that they’d best keep their wits about them when it comes to bitchin’ about the salary…in order to keep their job.

  14. The NFLPA had contract negotiation put into their bargaining agreement a few years back, I don’t think the IRL has the same deal.

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