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,Bill Sayer

Pro sports contracts come with personal sacrifices

By - Last modified: April 27, 2012 at 8:57 AM

Last January, Mets pitcher R.A. Dickey climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

While this would be impressive by itself, what’s also notable is that the Mets let him try. Athletes, unlike us average employees, are limited by their employers in terms of what personal interests they can pursue outside their sport.

Most pro athlete contracts have strict language that forbids them from personal activities that pose a serious risk of injury. Ignoring these terms can be considered a breach of contract on the player’s part.

While the restrictions vary by league and team, there are some activities that show up often. Teams don’t want their players boxing or wrestling, understandably. Athletes usually have to wait for retirement if they want to hang glide, skydive, fly planes or race cars. It’s not just daredevil sports. Contracts also can forbid common activities like scuba diving, motorcycle riding and skiing.

Sometimes contract language is so broad it allows for breaches if players injure themselves playing other sports, even recreationally. In Dickey’s case, his contract with the Mets didn’t have language about mountain climbing, but the team still sent a strongly worded warning to his agent.

Examples of how athletes at their peaks have breached their contracts off the field:

  • Aaron Boone: In January of 2004, just months after his unforgettable 11th-inning walk-off homer to win the ALCS, Boone tore a ligament in his knee playing pickup basketball. The Yankees terminated his one-year, $5.75 million contract and paid him $917,000 in termination pay.
  • Kellen Winslow Jr.: After being drafted sixth overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2004, the tight end broke his leg in the second week of his rookie season. Months later, despite his leg still healing and his contract explicitly stating that he could not ride motorcycles, Winslow bought a sport bike. In May 2005, while trying to learn how to do wheelies in a parking lot, he hit a curb, suffering injuries that caused him to miss the entire 2005 season. The Browns kept Winslow but the breach allowed them to recover his salary for the year and some of the bonus money in his contract.
  • Jay Williams: After winning the NCAA basketball championship with Duke, he was drafted second overall by the Chicago Bulls. Just after the end of his rookie season, Williams was severely injured in a motorcycle accident. His contract forbid motorcycles. The Bulls paid him $3 million of a $7.7 million contract and let him go.

 At this point, you’re probably wondering about Ben Roethlisberger. After his motorcycle accident in 2006, many assumed that Ben, who was riding a very powerful sport bike without a helmet, would be in trouble with the Steelers. The team, however, doesn’t specifically bar activities in its contracts, instead stating breach is from injuries stemming from risky behavior. They had previously advised his agents that the bike habits could pose a serious risk, but that was all they could do.

Roethlisberger ended up avoiding a breach when he was able to return to the team the following season. It would have been an interesting situation if he couldn’t play the next season, just months after guiding the team to a Super Bowl win. Would the Steelers have found him in breach and cut him, after stern warnings, or kept their franchise player? What should they have done?

Bill Sayer is a financial analyst in the insurance industry and holds a degree in economics. A native of Upstate New York, Bill enjoys watching college football, the NFL, NHL and Premier League soccer from his home inPalmyra. Have a suggestion, link or question?

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