Strong Safety

Has the NFL gone too far trying to monitor players' off-field antics?

The clause goes on to state that players can be fined, suspended or fired for gambling, narcotics or "any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the League or professional football."

But some teams don't stop at the status quo: Having been burned by Stanley Wilson's Miami coke binge and the outspokenness of wide receiver Carl Pickens, the Cincinnati Bengals are widely believed to have the strictest loyalty clause in all of football. It reads, in part: "If a Player makes any public comment to the media, including but not limited to the newspaper, magazines, television, radio or internet that breaches Player's obligation of loyalty to Club and/or undermines the public's respect for the Club, Club coaches or Club management...player shall forfeit and shall immediately return and refund to the Club that amount of the bonus herein provided as follows..."

"When you're dealing with a private employer, there is no First Amendment protection," says Lemley. "That being said, I think that clause is extremely vague. And sometimes, when a clause is that vague, a court will void it in its entirety. But there's nothing unlawful or improper about including such a clause."

St. Louis-based agent Joe Hipskind begs to differ.

"Why do we need these loyalty clauses in the first place?" he says. "Last time I checked, Tony Dungy has so much respect from his players that he doesn't need protection from a loyalty clause. I say that knowing there are some exceptions — Terrell Owens, for example. But what these clauses do is show the players that they're not to be trusted. It's an overly defensive gesture on the part of the teams. It builds walls between team management and players when you try to enforce these things, and that's why I don't like them."

Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the National Football League Players Association, doesn't like them either. In 2001 the NFLPA tried unsuccessfully to strike loyalty clauses from contracts. Undaunted, the NFLPA is using its disdain for such clauses as a negotiation chit in its current efforts to hammer out a new collective-bargaining agreement with the league.

"That's on our list of demands: That clubs not be allowed to circumvent maximum disciplining conditions of the CBA through contract clauses tied to bonus money," says Berthelsen. "But once they're in the contracts, it's very difficult to overcome."

Club representatives, Berthelsen adds, say they have to be protected when giving out huge signing bonuses. "My answer is: 'Well, don't pay the signing bonuses' — knowing full well that they probably will."

[Editor's note: A more extensive version of this story can be found at ]

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