Bills can argue Davis breached employment contract by walking out on team mid-game.
At halftime of today’s 31-20 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Bills cornerback Vontae Davis “pulled himself out of the game [and told coaches] he was done.” Per multiple reports, Davis then changed into street clothes and left New Era Field. When asked about the apparent retirement, Bills veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander called the move “completely disrespectful” and something he had never seen in all of his days of football, “Pop Warner, high school, [or] college.”
Davis put all rumors to rest this evening when he released a statement via his instagram account officially announcing his retirement from professional football.
“[T]oday on the field, reality hit me fast and hard: I shouldn’t be out there anymore. I meant no disrespect to my teammates and my coaches. . . . [I]t’s more important for me and my family to walk away healthy than to willfully embrace the warrior mentality and limp away too late.”
Where Bills players, coaches and training staff may have some choice words for Davis, the team’s administrative staff may have the best remedy against the cornerback–withholding the remainder of his 2018 salary.
NFL players are employees of their teams. After workout, roster, and signing bonuses are paid out, players are paid a base salary. This base salary is split up into seventeen increments and paid out of over the course of the NFL’s seventeen-week season. Davis’s 2018 salary breakdown is as follows, per Spotrac.com:
|Base Salary||Signing Bonus||Roster Bonus||Workout Bonus|
When Davis signed with the Bills in February, he collected his $1.5M signing bonus. He attended OTAs, which allowed him to earn his $250K workout bonus, and made the Bills’ 53-man roster in August, earning the $312,500 roster bonus. However, the remaining $2.25M could be at issue if the Bills decide to raise it.
Davis’s contract is not available to the public. However, the NFLPA publishes a standard form player contract on its website, which is also the first appendix to the collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners. There are two relevant provisions of the contract that may be pertinent if the Bills decide to recoup some, if not most, of Davis’s base salary.
First, is the “Employment and Services” covenant, which provides in relevant part, “Player agrees to give his best efforts and loyalty to the Club, and to conduct himself on and off the field with appropriate recognition of the fact that the success of professional football depends largely on public respect for and approval of those associated with the game. Player will report promptly for and participate fully in Club’s official mandatory minicamp(s), official preseason training camp, all Club meetings and practice sessions, and all preseason, regular season and postseason football games scheduled for or by Club.”
Additionally, Section 16 of the contract, entitled “Extension” states, “Unless this contract specifically provides otherwise, if Player . . . retires from professional football as an active player, or otherwise fails or refuses to perform his services under this contract, then this contract will be tolled between the date of . . . his retirement, or his failure or refusal to perform, and the later date of his return to professional football. During the period this contract is tolled, Player will not be entitled to any compensation or benefits.” Under this provision, when an active player voluntarily retires during the season (Bills fans will remember Percy Harvin and Anquan Boldin in 2017) the contractual obligation between the two parties tolls. Thus, the player is no longer obligated to play and the team is no longer obligated to pay.
Applying these provisions of the standard player contract to the situation at hand, when Vontae Davis retired from football at halftime of today’s game, his contract with the Bills “tolled” and the Bills are no longer obligated to pay compensation or benefits until he comes out of retirement. This provision is relatively clear.
What is less clear, however, is whether Davis is entitled to his 1/17th base salary game check from today. Davis’s agent will assert he is due the entire amount because he spent the week preparing for Sunday’s contest and dressed for the game. On the other hand, the Bills can argue that Davis breached Section Two of the standard player contract by not giving “his best efforts and loyalty to the club” and by failing to “participate fully” in the regular season game by walking out on the team at halftime, refusing to participate in any media obligations after the game, and otherwise not acting up to the standards expected of an NFL football player. Furthermore, the Bills could argue at an arbitration hearing that the team is owed a pro-rata share of the $1.5M signing bonus back because Davis only participated in two of the team’s 17 games. This argument would rely on the Barry Sanders Rule, where an NFL arbitrator ruled Barry Sanders was obligated to pay back $1.83M/year for four years of his $11M signing bonus on a six-year contract after retiring two years into the deal.
Admittedly, this is an inventive legal argument and a scenario that will likely not play out. The legal fees associated with disputing payment of Davis’s game salary alone would far outweigh the cost of paying him. At the same time, the cornerback’s mid-game retirement was unprecedented, and both the team and the league need to set some standard to handle situations like this in the future. A player walking out on his team in the middle of the game is not the look the NFL wants. Further, the league has limited options to remedy its media image because it can no longer fine Davis due to the fact he is no longer an active player. Accordingly, the simplest solution would be to leverage the language of his player contract to effectively issue a quasi fine in the form of a withheld game check. Even if it is not in the form of a financial punishment and Davis goes without reprimand, there is no doubt this issue will be on the table when the players and owners sit down to form the next NFL CBA.