What Does A Contract Mean, Anyway?
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.