We’ve discussed a bit on the Incognito side of the Jonthan Martin situation, but with Dolphins teammates jumping to the defense of Incognito and wondering why Martin is taking such actions, we should also examine what Martin has to lose by leaving the team.
In the NFL players such as Martin are given guaranteed portions of a contract as well as moderate signing bonuses. All of the money involved in the contract is contingent on the player making a good faith effort to honor his contract. While we often consider a signing bonus to simply be earned once paid, in reality it is not. The league provides for forfeiture provisions of bonus money already paid for almost any occurrence that impairs a players’ ability to honor such contract.
While many have speculated that he could be placed on a Non-Football Illness list, there needs to be a reason to do that. For instance when the 49ers Aldon Smith was placed on NFI a few weeks ago he checked himself into rehab, a legitimate reason to go on NFI. There had been stories that Martin checked himself into a hospital for a very brief stay due to emotional distress. If true that may have been advised as a manner to be placed on NFI rather than being charged with leaving the team. The reason I say advised is because it seems that the situation had been coming to a head for weeks based on a report by Pro Football Talk.
Per my understanding of the NFL roster rules a player who leaves the team for an extended period during the regular season severely limits what his team can do. The Dolphins options at this stage, unless NFI is an option, are to either place Martin on the Reserve/Retired list, keep him on the active roster, or release him. This could explain why Miami has kept him active. Once placed on the Retired list Martins contract tolls under a left squad provision and he is unable to play in the NFL for the balance of the season. Once on this list he is also going to be subject to forfeiture provisions and will not earn a salary, something he may earn on NFI, especially considering the public outcry in favor of Martin. If they released Martin the Dolphins would have no recourse to recover any money paid or owed under his guarantee.
Martin had signed a four year contract with the Dolphins following the 2012 draft. His 2013 salary was guaranteed and he received a signing bonus of $1,919,468. If Martin fails to return to the Dolphins Miami can take actions to recover all of the money remaining on his bonus. If he goes onto a retirement list this week he would lose $285,866 of his $607,466 salary remaining this year and could stand to lose $225,841 in signing bonus money, for a total loss of $511,707. If he was to fail to return to the NFL he would lose $959,824 in 2014 and 2015 bonus allocations. He would have an opportunity to re-earn that money if he ever returned and honored his contract.
Proving for an unsafe work environment could give Martin a reason to file a grievance if the Dolphins were to attempt to take his salaries and bonus allocations away from him. I would imagine that this becomes a matter of workplace safety and he could not be expected to come to work in an unsafe environment. The Dolphins failure to provide a safe workplace might mean that he is entitled to his bonus money since it would be the Dolphins failures to act that did not allow Martin to honor his contract. In a roundabout way this was no different than Miami cutting the player from the roster.
This all seems to be uncharted territory for the NFL so they and the Dolphins will likely proceed cautiously. The NFL has come under scrutiny this year due a wide variety of topics ranging from a player accused of murder to an increased focus on head trauma to changing the name of a football team. It seems as if in this situation the general public pressure and opinion is much different than the in-football opinion, where many people have quietly backed the Dolphins until yesterday when the players overtly seemed to side with Incognito in the dispute. We’ll see how it shakes out in the coming days.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.