Sulks, rats and hold-outs: contract negotiations on either side of the Atlantic

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Atlanta Falcons stadium

My NFL London season tickets were booked over the summer meaning I could now count myself as an official follower of the sport. I really enjoy looking at the differences and similarities between American football and association football. My first blog in this area looks at the way players negotiate their contracts.  

In the European version of football, it’s seen as crass to vocally laud yourself as the best player in your league or your position. Players that are willing to declare themselves the best, like Cristiano Ronaldo, are usually seen as arrogant and egotistical, not team players. Only fans and their appointed voices, journalists, are allowed to decide if you’re the best or not. In the NFL, however, status and rankings are key – and contracts seem to follow suit. 

The off-season, in both varieties of the game known as football, was typically full of rumour and ‘breaking news’ about player demands. In Europe these demands are often seen as strops or sulks, across the pond it’s considered negotiating and earning your worth. 

In the hours before the NFL season kicked off Julio Jones, the Atlanta Falcons Wide Receiver announced his contract extension had been agreed. It was a deal that would make him the highest-paid player in the league is his position – at the time of signing. An article by the Athletic’s Atlanta focused writer commended Jones for “reporting to training camp as opposed to holding out.”, even though he was “without the deal he desired”. He also showed up for minicamp although he didn’t participate. Other players such as the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott decided to stay away. 

Similar articles and comments would indicate that Jones went about the business of negotiating his contract the best way he could. He earned the deal he deserved as one of the top players in his position with a record of being a great influence on the ‘locker room’. As one below the line comment put it, “He is a great pro – never heard a complaint about him or the way he conducts himself”. The only real controvesy here was if Jones’ contract would be sorted in time for him to take the field in the Falcons’ first regular season game.

“I don’t know. What I’m trying to do is be ready. You know what I mean. It’s not if I’m going to play or if i’m not going to play.”

Julio Jones on whether he’d make Atlanta’s first game

Back in Europe, a similar story was unfolding in the Premier League. France’s World Cup winner Paul Pogba and his agent were apparently working to get the midfielder a new contract either with his current club Manchester United or another on the continent. Articles in papers such as the Daily Mirror claimed Pogba was set to ‘quit’ United and ‘wanted out’, even though he was present on the club’s pre-season tour and has started the season in his usual central midfield position seemingly unburdened by a desire to jump ship. On the face of it, it would seem these two professional sportsmen went about things in a similar way yet coverage makes Pogba look like an agitator and Jones like a saint  – this may be a bad choice of words as the Saints are the Falcons biggest rivals. 

It seems that getting the contract you deserve is more accepted in the NFL whereas our football prefers this side of the game to remain behind closed doors. We know you get paid a lot, but please keep your negotiating in the boardroom where we don’t have to see it and be constantly reminded of how much you make. 

These are of course two vastly different sports. The first thing a lot of people will point to when trying to explain these differences is the perceived level of danger in each of the two sports. Julio Jones is quite right to cash in on his talent, he could have a helmet propelled forward by a 250lb defensive player crash into his knee at any point. Other people might point to the overt capitalism of American culture as being a reason. Football in Europe has long been facing its own existential crisis about the role and influence of money. We prefer to not shout about our money over here, or just not to have to think about it too much. 

Let’s look at a couple of other examples from the past summer. One particular moment that caught my eye was Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey arriving back at his club’s pre-season training. He arrived in the back of an armoured truck surrounded by bags of money in a perceived attempt to bring some attention to his contract situation. Ramsey does have a bit of a reputation for being outspoken but this was all quite fun. It’s the Atlantic Ocean away, however, from Europe’s football. Can you imagine a Premier League footballer designing their own contract boosting PR stunt? I can’t think of anything that comes close. 

Another Frenchman, Laurent Koscielny was apparently in contract discussions with his club Arsenal this summer. He, however, clearly preferred a return to his homeland. He refused to go on tour with the Gunners and boycotted pre-season activities. Koscielny got his way and was promptly sold to Bordeaux. He was not looked at favourably by Arsenal fans who compared his negotiating technique to that of a rodent. Perhaps he should take some lessons from Ramsey on showmanship.

The latter examples underline more differences in the two sports. European footballers can be sold to other clubs being the key one. NFL players can only be traded for other players or draft picks. Or they can move when their contracts expire and they become free agents. This alone creates a different dynamic when it comes to making a deal.

“My captain, my arse!”

Former Arsenal player Perry Groves on Laurent Koscielny

Likely, the reason why players in these different sports unveil their contracts demands differently lies in a combination of the reasons mentioned but I’ve found it fascinating looking at the differences over the summer. It is quite refreshing to see the NFL approach which seems to have a greater deal of transparency and honesty about it. “Hey, I’m really good. Pay me what I deserve!”. The Premier League and its continental compatriots could perhaps learn a thing or two from this more upfront approach and maybe fans will be less inclined to think of players asking for more money as rats or sulks. 

In the end, though the reception a players financial demands get from fans will still be dependent on them doing the business on the pitch, or field – Raheem Sterling’s new contract last November was barely mentioned. I still, however, look forward to the day James Milner leaps out from inside of a fake bank vault and runs into Melwood with a bag full of cardboard gold bullion.