The general counsel of the NFL Players Association said today the Bengals are violating the league's collective bargaining agreement with a contract clause in which a player could forfeit his signing bonus if he publicly criticizes the team. The NFLPA plans to pursue the matter, but the club disagrees and will continue to put the language in their contracts.
"We're not looking at somebody talking about a guy fumbling or somebody saying we should have run when we should have passed," said Bengals President Mike Brown. "It's the unacceptable attack on a coach or management."
But the agent for fourth-round pick Curtis Keaton said his client won't sign a three-year deal with the clause and that the Bengals, "know we'll sit if we have to," said Wesley Spencer. Still, Keaton is confident he'll sign a deal soon because, "I think it's a pretty minor thing that can get ironed out.
Yet Spencer said he's received backing from the NFLPA and general counsel Richard Berthelsen doesn't think it's so minor.
"They can't negotiate discipline on top of what's already in the CBA and the NFL rules," he said. "That's already covered. It can't be made part of a contract."
But after getting burned by wide receiver Carl Pickens last year, the Bengals think teams need to protect themselves from big-money players trying to get released with inflammatory statements. They can go to another team while the jilted club is left with salary cap wreckage.
Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, the team's chief counsel, argues the NFL's schedule of fines for misconduct doesn't limit the club because the CBA doesn't prohibit teams from negotiating extra portions of a contract.
She points to the two incidents the club is trying to prevent: Pickens' tirade about the the Bengals retaining coach Bruce Coslet and the perception that punter Lee Johnson openly wondered if fans should buy tickets after a 1998 loss.
"It's really amazing to me," Blackburn said. "All we're asking them to do is something they ought to do anyway. I'd have a hard time understanding why someone wouldn't sign it. We're not looking for a way to get the money back. It wouldn't be treated that way. It would be obvious. You look at those two times and anyone would be hard pressed to say it wasn't obvious."
Spencer called the clause, "unprecedented," and "too open ended and arbitrary." Blackburn said she'd be willing to listen to any suggestions for tweaking of language, but the concept is there.
"A company can limit speech, government can't," Brown said. "I wonder if a group of writers went on the radio or wrote in the paper and said about their editors what Pickens said about his coach. They wouldn't be there very long. No business I can think of would have tolerated some of the things we've faced."
When Pickens lambasted Coslet and offered to buy out his contract, he was threatened with a one-game suspension that would have cost him a game check of $264,705.88 if he didn't apologize. That fell under the NFL's "detrimental to the club," guideline, but the Bengals have their own fines about public criticism.
Asked about agents and players who won't sign because of the clause, Brown said, "They don't have to sign."