In the NFL, the only guaranteed money that is truly guaranteed is money that ends up in the player’s bank account. The looming grievance between the Ravens and former Ravens safety Earl Thomas will prove that, once again.
The Ravens released Thomas on Sunday, for “personal conduct that has adversely affected” the team. That wasn’t a phrase the Ravens crafted in the moment; undoubtedly, it was specifically chosen to match the language from the document informing Thomas of the termination of his contract.
Attached as Appendix H to the Collective Bargaining Agreement is a document titled “Notice of Termination.” At the top, it advises the player that his contract has been torn up. The team then must check one of five boxes. The fourth box reads as follows: “You have engaged in personal conduct which, in the reasonable judgment of the Club, adversely affects or reflects on the Club.”
If the Ravens can prove that Thomas “engaged in personal conduct which, in the reasonable judgment of the Club, adversely affects . . . the Club,” the Ravens will owe Thomas nothing, even though his $10 million salary for 2020 was fully guaranteed.
“Fully guaranteed” is, in situations like this, a misnomer. No contractual payment is fully guaranteed. It’s guaranteed for skill and/or injury and/or salary cap.
As noted on Sunday, the language of the Earl Thomas guarantee for 2020 says he’ll get the money even if the contract is terminated due to perceived deficiencies in skill, even if he’s injured, and/or even if the Ravens decide they need to cut him in order to create cap space. The contract does not guarantee the payment even if the player is terminated for personal conduct that adversely affects the team.
The looming fight over the eight-figure payment is, as one agent with extensive experience told PFT on Sunday, “groundbreaking.” Most agents and nearly all media believe that guaranteed means guaranteed, and that a player who is released with salary or other payments guaranteed for skill, injury, and cap will get the money.
The truth is that, if the Ravens did indeed make the decision due to personal conduct that adversely affected the team, the action falls into a category that isn’t covered by the guarantee.
The grievance will play out in the background over the coming months. By the time a ruling is issued, it will be a footnote in the news cycle. But it will also create a precedent that will become relevant if/when teams have players with significant guaranteed payments who have demonstrated personal misconduct that gives the team a potential out.
It will happen rarely, and it’s definitely an all-in move by the Ravens. The question is whether they have the cards to back it up. That will be determined as the grievance proceeds.