Decision as big as NFL

BY GEOFF HOBSON

TAMPA, Fla. _ The Bengals think Monday's decision by an arbitrator upholding their signing bonus clause will have league-wide implications.

They also said the so-called, "Carl Pickens Clause," will now be a staple of their contracts.

The NFL Players Association, which brought the grievance against the Bengals, hopes to stem the backlash of Monday's decision.

Richard Berthelsen, the NFLPA's general counsel, said Monday his group plans to make it a bone of contention in the current negotiations to extend the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL.

"We'll continue to argue it's a violation because players can't be disciplined twice," Berthelsen said.

When Richard Bloch allowed the Bengals to marry the NFL's standard loyalty language into a clause attached to the signing bonus, the stakes just got higher.

"It's an extremely important decision because the arbiter has said that signing bonuses may have certain conditions that have to be met in order for the money to be paid," said Troy Blackburn, Bengals director of business development.

"More and more teams are doing this as protection because the signing bonuses are getting so big," Blackburn said. "What if a player is out of shape and he can't play? What if he conducts himself in such a manner that it is detrimental to the team and he has to leave? Then the team has to have the money back to get a guy that can play."

The Bengals crafted the clause last spring in wake of the verbal outburst from receiver Carl Pickens during the last week of the 1999 season. Which is how the clause got its nickname.

Among those signing the clause were right tackle Willie Anderson, running back Corey Dillon and most of the club's draft choices.

With Dillon now stalking a bonus in the $15 million range, Leigh Steinberg, his new agent, couldn't be reached for comment regarding his view of Monday's ruling and if the clause would be a deal breaker.

Just three months after signing a five-year, $22.2 million deal that included a $3.5 million signing bonus, Pickens called what amounted to a locker room press conference to rip management for retaining coach Bruce Coslet despite his failure to record a winning record in seven full NFL seasons.

The Bengals argue Pickens forced his own release while pocketing the $3.5 million bonus. If Pickens had signed a Pickens clause, he would have had to forfeit some, or all, of that $ 3.5 million.

But Berthelsen and the NFLPA argue a loyalty clause attached to the bonus is a violation because the CBA already accounts for discipline.

"There is already 'maximum discipline,'" Berthelsen said. "It's already covered."

Berthelsen was surprised Bloch relied on two precedents in his ruling. They centered on Mike Kenn of the Falcons and Lee Williams of the old Houston Oilers.

Both players lost reporting bonuses because they were late arriving to training camp.

Jim Steiner, the agent for Bengals' third-round pick Ron Dugans, and his client held out on signing the clause for nearly two weeks after they agreed on money. When they did sign, they attached a letter of protest.

"I still don't

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like the clause. I think it stinks," Steiner said. "This game is all about relationships and building them and it starts right from that first contact. What does this say to a young a player?"

The Bengals insist they are doing what other teams do, which is protecting huge, lump-sum investments.

"What if a guy retires, like Barry Sanders?" Blackburn asked. "What if a guy quits, like Barry Foster? What if a guy shows up 415 pounds and can't play? Teams are just saying they have to be protected."

Anderson has been privately assured by Bengals President Mike Brown that the clause would only be invoked in an extraordinary, Pickens-like incident.

But Anderson is still unsettled by the team' power to interpret any statement as possibly disloyal.

"What if Mike is having a bad day?" Anderson asked. "What bothers me about the Pickens' thing is, he just went off in that one scenario. Some guys said he was right. Some guys wondered if Bruce had the spirit to keep coaching, and then look what happened when he resigned (after the third game of this past season).

"But I understand there has to be loyalty to a team," Anderson said. "I would never question that. It's just you wonder how it might get used on you."

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