In Defense of Kam Chancellor
Seattle’s star safety was sorely missed in the opener as he sat locked in a contract dispute with the defending NFC champs. Here’s why his holdout deserves more consideration than angry fans are willing to give it
Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor did not play on Sunday because he wants to restructure his contract and the team isn’t budging. Also, the Seahawks lost to the Rams. These are things that Seahawks fans are not happy about.
A sampling of Kam Chancellor’s Twitter mentions:
@Kam_Chancellor shame on you. Such a small window for your team to be great & you're absent. Such a close game & I put this loss on you.— James Waugh (@Waugh2000) September 13, 2015
We arrive at this very rare incidence of a Pro Bowl safety’s holdout extending into the regular season because Seahawks general manager John Schneider believes it is bad business to restructure lucrative long-term contracts with multiple years remaining on the deal. Among management across the league, he is not alone in this thinking. Chancellor has stepped out of the crowd, certainly, and the concessions he’s asking for may very well jeopardize any leverage Schneider possesses with other similarly disgruntled players.
In April 2013 he signed a four-year, $28 million extension through 2017, including $17 million guaranteed. He wants $4 million of his 2017 compensation moved up to 2016. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports that Chancellor and the team are but $900,000 apart in contract talks. The problem for the Seahawks is that Chancellor will likely ask for a new deal altogether after 2016, which makes a $4 million concession in 2015 more complicated for Schneider.
But before you join the army of “12s” verbally walloping one of their own, let’s clear up a few things.
• No, in the NFL, a contract is not a contract. Some fans think NFL contracts are like retail transactions, wherein a price is set, goods or services exchange hands, and the seller has no more right to recall the half-eaten apple than the buyer has call to negotiate a better deal on the apple after he’s bitten into it.
This is a list of people the Seahawks have waived or released with time and cash remaining on their contracts in the calendar year 2015. This is typical of all 32 teams:
Robert Turbin. Will Blackmon. Anthony McCoy. Tyrell Adams. RaShaun Allen. R.J. Archer. Obum Gwacham. Keenan Lambert. Ronald Martin Jr. T.Y. McGill. Douglas McNeil III. KeaVon Milton. Ryan Murphy. Will Pericak. Eric Pinkins. Terry Poole. Alex Singleton. Kevin Smith. Rod Smith. Julius Warmsley. Kasen Williams. Lemuel Jeanpierre. D’Anthony Smith. Jesse Davis. George Farmer. Deshon Foxx. Deontay Greenberry. Keelan Johnson. Quayshawn Nealy. Greg Scruggs. Ty Zimmerman. Brandon Cottom. Triston Wade. Jake Waters. Jeremy Crayton. Robert Smith. Tony McDaniel. Ryan Robinson. Tory Slater. Demitrius Bronson. Nate Isles. C.J. Davis. Justin Renfrow. Mike Taylor. Jared Wheeler. Mike Zimmer. Luke Ingram. Zach Miller. Jesse Williams. Garrett Scott.
Most of those players were in the beginning of one-year contracts. Some were on rookie contracts and had multiple years remaining on their deals. A handful of those cuts were the consequence of an injury. Such is the kind of pact that Kam Chancellor wants to amend—the kind that can be ripped up if the employee sprains his ankle.
In baseball and basketball, contracts are guaranteed. In the most dangerous, popular and lucrative sport in this land, they are not. In fact, it is precisely for this level of danger inherent to the sport that the game’s forefathers declined to offer employees contracts guaranteed in the event of injury—when league revenue numbered in the tens of thousands, such an arrangement was not financially feasible. Today, as league revenue approaches $15 billion, guaranteed contracts are still such a non-starter that the players’ union declined to push for the money in 2011 CBA talks, instead negotiating for easier concessions from the league such as reduced offseason practice time.
The implicit understanding at work here is the very lifeblood of professional football: Without the specter of lost wages nipping at the heels of limping and brain-scrambled football players, the players might start thinking seriously about their health. In other words, fully guaranteed contracts would mean fewer players willing to sacrifice long-term health to be available on Sundays.
• No, Kam Chancellor did not “sign up for this.” Not necessarily. He actually signed up to be a quarterback. He was a pro-style passer at Maury High in Norfolk a decade ago, and he was good at it. Rivals.com rated him the 27th-best pro-style quarterback among high school seniors in 2006, four spots behind Andy Dalton and seven spots in front of Colin Kaepernick. Chancellor signed with Virginia Tech with the idea he’d play quarterback, but the coaches almost immediately switched him to safety. It was a move he didn’t expect but ultimately accepted.
So Chancellor actually signed up to play a position that was becoming perhaps the safest on offense or defense with regard to brain injury and all other ailments. But he accepted a position switch to one of the only roles on a football field that was becoming more dangerous during the decade. Concussion data released by the NFL documenting diagnosed brain injuries from 1996 to 2007 showed a significant decrease of injury in the final five years of the sample. Only three position groups saw an increase in the rate of injury: tight ends, linebackers and defensive backs. And DBs experienced more documented brain injuries (291) than any other position group.
• No, Kam Chancellor is not selfish. When he was 10 years old he took an odd job sweeping up shorn hair at a Norfolk barber shop. He kept asking for raises. Asked where he was spending his money, he admitted he was buying groceries to help his single mom feed him and his five siblings. (Ask around your typical NFL locker room and you will hear 20 stories like this one.)
• No, Kam Chancellor is really not selfish. Consider Chancellor’s injury history and his response to those injuries since he signed the April 2013 extension giving him a certain degree of security ($17 million worth) and enough gravitas in the organization to at least think about prioritizing his long-term health over his availability to the team.
Before the divisional round playoff game against New Orleans in January 2014 he was listed as probable with a hip injury that would later require surgery. He played every down of that game and all but eight snaps in the next two games, the conference championship and the Super Bowl. In 2014 he considered surgery after the second week of the season and was said to be experiencing severe ankle pain in late September. He was a game-time decision in Week 6 with a hip injury and declared inactive with a groin injury in Week 10. Dealing with three injuries significant enough to be listed on an injury report, Chancellor still played 1,074 snaps in the regular season and playoffs combined, more than all but three defensive teammates. In the Super Bowl in February, Chancellor played with a torn MCL and a bone bruise in his left knee.
“I really never got an opportunity,” Chancellor’s teammate and former backup, Jeron Johnson, told me this summer. “Kam was going to be out there no matter what he was going through.”
And this wasn’t anything new. In 2011 Chancellor suffered a concussion in a Week 10 win over the Ravens. Nevertheless, he played every snap. The next week, he started in St. Louis and recorded five tackles in a 24-7 win, again playing every snap.
• No, you should not compare yourself to Kam Chancellor. As a starting safety on a Super Bowl team, Chancellor is in incredibly rare company—only a handful of people in the entire world can do his job at at the level he does. Even if you are at that same level of achievement in your chosen field, it is likely you will have the opportunity to perform at that level well into adulthood. NFL players’ careers are already short, and they can end abruptly with one awkward twist of the knee on national television.
• No, Kam Chancellor is not “letting down his teammates.” It may look like that on the field, especially when his backup gives up a touchdown that ties a game against a division rival and sends it to overtime. But most NFL players I’ve spoken to and all of the Seahawks I chatted with Sunday afternoon in the visitors locker room are both publicly and privately behind Chancellor. This is especially true of teammates who also come from poverty. “Can’t say it enough—this is a business,” one player told me. “The team doesn’t honor the contract when you get hurt, so why should you play for less than you’re worth?”
And, finally, yes, Kam Chancellor is worth the money. The argument could be made, especially after watching Sunday’s loss to the Rams, that Chancellor ought to be the highest-paid player on the Seattle defense. But Schneider’s job isn’t to diagnose and reward merit. His job is to build a winning football team within the limitations of the salary cap. He knows the minute he rewards Kam Chancellor for stepping out of line, an NFL contract with the Seattle Seahawks begins to resemble a two-way street. And the bosses just can’t live with that.
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