I remember only two things about my eighth birthday: John Hannah and Leon Gray.
Back then, my beloved Patriots loved running left behind tight end Russ Francis, left tackle Gray and left guard Hannah. All three made the 1976 All-Pro team. A drunk guy could have rushed for 1,000 yards behind them. Heading into the ’77 season, agent Howard Slusher convinced Hannah and Gray that they were underpaid — which they were — and that their best possible negotiating tactic was leaving the team. After the final preseason game, that’s exactly what they did. Nobody in New England could believe it.
Like … they’re not coming back?
Blessed with the best young team in football, every Pats fan thought we were headed for the Super Bowl. Slusher had other ideas. Underpaid stars had only one form of leverage in 1977: not playing. Slusher turned that into his trump card, holding out Gray, Hannah, Dan Fouts and a few others, then getting vilified as a sports home wrecker from coast to coast. Once the Pats stumbled to a 1-2 start (right around my birthday), everyone in New England painted Hannah and Gray as greedy jerks. The lowest moment: the Boston Globe publishing a reader’s letter that parodied Hannah’s religious beliefs, a tweak of the 23rd psalm that read, “He restoreth my Greed. He leadeth me in the path of hypocrites for his own gain. Yea, though I abandon all honor, I fear no conscience.”
Hannah and Gray returned without new deals in Week 4, only it was too late. The Patriots never recovered from those dumb losses in Week 2 (to the 6-8 Browns) and Week 3 (to the 3-11 Jets). The 9-4 Pats were somehow eliminated before their final regular season game. We blamed the holdouts through the winter into the spring, then the Red Sox caught fire and we moved on. The Gray/Hannah season became part of Patriots lore, just another screwed-up season for a screwed-up franchise.
Twenty years later, during my bartending/waitering days, Hannah occasionally strolled into our restaurant for a meal. Long retired, he was considered the greatest Patriot ever and the greatest offensive lineman ever. My co-worker J-Bug and I would stare at him from 30 feet away, pretending to clean beer glasses, as the Bug repeatedly whispered under his breath, “Hog Hannah! Hog Hannah!” Only after Hannah’s second glass of wine would we creep over to talk football. One time, I mentioned being dismayed that my childhood Pats never made a Super Bowl. Sugar Bear Hamilton’s dubious roughing-the-passer penalty killed us in Oakland in ’76. The holdouts killed us in ’77. Chuck Fairbanks killed us when he fled right before the ’78 playoffs. Before the ’79 season, the Pats traded Gray and the team fell apart. That was that.
I remember Hog Hannah shaking his head. Even in his late 40s, the man was truly intimidating in person — mammoth neck, huge noggin, broad shoulders, round legs — like a wheel barrel with arms and legs. He had a withering glare, so you always had to watch what you said. If he didn’t like a point you made, even something innocent like, “I don’t know why we kicked off to Desmond Howard,” he stared you down for a couple of seconds and made you feel like an ant. This time, he didn’t say anything. I specifically remember thinking, “Crap, I just bummed out Hog Hannah … this is going to end with him breaking a wine bottle over my skull.”
Nope. When he finally spoke, it was about the Gray trade. All these years later, he still couldn’t believe the team broke them up. Owner Billy Sullivan never forgave them for holding out; Hannah never forgave Sullivan for severely underpaying him for so many years. It wasn’t about money as much as respect. When Tampa Bay drafted Charley Hannah (an offensive lineman) in the third round of the 1977 draft, Charley signed for more money than his All-Pro brother was earning. That was the final straw for John Hannah. That’s why he held out.
Fans see things mostly in black and white. You’re good or you suck. You make too much or you don’t make enough. You came through or you choked. Black and white. But contract negotiations often don’t work that way. There’s an old saying that a good deal leaves both sides a little upset afterward. When one side feels they could have gotten more, and the other side feels like they could have paid less, that’s when you’ve found a middle ground. This can’t happen every time in sports. Sometimes, it leads to a holdout. Almost every time, we blame the player. After all, they are lucky to play sports for a living. After all, they signed a contract. After all, we would kill to switch places with them. We skip over the part that, if we were in their shoes, we would probably do the same thing.
From age 7 through age 27, I blamed Leon Gray, John Hannah and Howard Slusher for blowing the 1977 title. Then I watched Hannah shake his head and stare at an empty bottle of wine. Did his missing those first three weeks cripple that Patriots season? Probably. Did he still feel the pain of all those barbs from fans and media? Yes.
Would he do it again? Absolutely.
I don’t remember his answer exactly, but it went something like this: “Fans think it’s about the money, but it’s really about respect. It’s about being consumed by something that you believe in your heart is completely unfair. Once you’re consumed by it, it affects the way you play, the way you prepare for games, and everything else you’re doing. You can’t get away from it. So that’s why we had to do what we did, even if it didn’t work out. The way they treated us was unfair.”
Again, I don’t remember exactly what he said. I didn’t have a tape recorder. I was just a bartender listening to a former football star. But it went something like that. And yes, I forgave John Hannah that night, even if I never told him.
* * * * *
I keep thinking about that story this summer, with the NFL’s labor agreement expiring and the word “holdout” repeatedly popping up. The first modern sports holdout happened in 1966, when Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax skipped spring training and demanded $500,000 apiece, guaranteed, spread over the next three seasons. Every professional athlete was on a yearly contract at that time; a reserve clause bound them for an extra year. When Curt Flood famously compared this relationship to slavery a few years later, he wasn’t far off. The players had no rights at all. Eventually, shrewd lawyers like Larry Fleisher and Marvin Miller flipped the arrangement around. But that was still a few years away.
The Dodgers settled with Koufax (one year, $125,000) and Drysdale (one year, $110,000), then got swept in the 1966 World Series. Koufax retired that winter. The following spring, general manager Buzzie Bavasi wrote a candid feature for Sports Illustrated about the holdout negotiations that included this eye-opening passage:
- “I told [Koufax and Drysdale] that … the amount of money they were asking was ridiculous, and that nobody on the ball club, including me and [manager] Walter Alston, was ever going to get more than a one-year contract. As I recall, I said something like, ‘You’re both athletes, and what you’re selling is your physical ability, and how can you guarantee your physical ability three years in advance? If you guarantee me that you will both be healthy and strong and still winning 20 games each in 1968, I’ll give you a three-year contract.’ Since not even Cassius Clay could make a guarantee like that, the meeting broke up.”
How can you guarantee your physical ability three years in advance?
That’s a great question. Really, you can’t. But an athlete getting paid year to year, risking his body and always being one bad break away his career ending … that was even more unfair. So it’s been an uneasy balancing act over the last 35 years — teams begrudgingly guaranteeing more money and more years, athletes promising a certain level of performance and sometimes failing to live up to that standard — with the power shifting to athletes. Teams have only one real advantage left: If a player outperforms his contract and becomes a bargain.
The flip side of that? What John Hannah said.
And that’s when you have a contract holdout. We’ve grown accustomed to 10 types of holdouts over the years. We’ll skimp over the first seven because the last three directly affect the 2010 NFL season and need a little more marination (as Tony Allen might say).
Type No. 1: The “I’m Holding Out For Bigger Reasons Than Just Me” Holdout
As perfected by Flood in 1970. Athletes don’t need to make individual sacrifices like this anymore; the unions have amassed too much power. By the way, the fact that HBO hasn’t made a Flood documentary is almost as perplexing as their ongoing refusal to cancel “Hung.”
Type No. 2: The “I’d Rather Not Play At All Than Play For You Schmucks” Holdout
As perfected by Eli Manning (forced his way from San Diego to New York), John Elway (Baltimore to Denver), Bo Jackson (Tampa to Oakland) and Eric Lindros (Quebec to Philly). My favorite holdout because it’s such a slap in the face to the city involved; the guy could show up 58 years later and they’d still boo him. Also, it’s a good ethical argument: Can you really blame any of those guys for doing everything they could to find a more desirable situation? Did you see that “30 for 30” documentary about the Colts leaving Baltimore? Would you have wanted to play for Robert Irsay?
For instance, I love visiting Seattle and Portland — two of my favorite cities in America, actually — but could never live in the Pacific Northwest because nonstop rain puts me in a perpetual funk. If Portland drafted me No. 1 in a Sports Columnist draft, and I knew I could hold out for a few months and force them to trade me to San Diego, Miami or Los Angeles … you’re telling me I wouldn’t hold out? Please. In a heartbeat. I need the sun. Sorry, Portland. It’s not you, it’s me.
Type No. 3: The “Not Only Am I Holding Out, But He Is, Too!” Holdout
As perfected by Koufax and Drysdale. This happens more often in television and movies, actually — like when the entire cast of “Friends” held out together, or even recently when the lovable “Jersey Shore” morons did it. And it usually works. Plus, you gotta love any scenario that involves Snooki potentially saying, “I’m not holding out unless Paulie D and J-Woww are in, too.”
(Another reason to love this type of holdout: when television success makes mediocre talents decide that they’re irreplaceable. Best example: When Bo and Luke Duke held out of the “Dukes of Hazzard” and were quickly replaced by their creepy cousins, Coy and Vance, which destroyed the show and the careers of everyone involved. I still haven’t forgiven Tom Wopat and John Schneider. As a kid, I hated Coy and Vance 10 times more than I hated Gray and Hannah. It’s true.)
Type No. 4: The Albert Haynesworth Passive-Aggressive “I’m Going To Bitch And Complain And Suck The Life Out of My Fans But There’s No Way I’m Leaving Any Money On The Table So If You’re Getting Rid Of Me You Better Pay Me Every Dime I’m Owed, And If Not, I’m Just Gonna Be A Lazy Cancer And Go Through The Motions And Perform A Colombian Necktie On Your Season” Non-Holdout Holdout
As you can tell, he invented this one.
Type No. 5: The “Watch Me Sit Out This Entire Season, I Will Absolutely Bite My Nose To Spite My Face!” Holdout
Usually a disaster, with two exceptions: Gus Williams (1980) and Sean Gilbert (1997) signed for significantly bigger deals than they passed up the previous year. Gus came back as good as ever, although I can’t condone any situation that robbed us of one year of Gus’ prime. (Loved that guy.) Gilbert was never as effective, no surprise because when players skip a year in their primes — especially in football — it’s nearly impossible to shake off that rust.
(Important note: This is the same reason why the 2007 writer’s strike in Hollywood was so dumb at the time and seems 10 times dumber now. Walking away from guaranteed salaries for eight months just to get a better deal on Internet royalties? I dare any writing winner at this month’s Emmys to make a joke about how much they’ve enjoyed spending their millions in Internet royalties these last two years. The room will go dead silent.)
Type No. 6: The Dirk Diggler Memorial “I’m the Biggest Star Here!” Holdout
As perfected by Kelly Stouffer, who sat out the 1987 season because … well, I can’t think of a good reason. It’s always fun when a non-superstar vastly overvalues his worth. I’m the biggest star here! We’ll shoot when I’m good and ready to shoot! Most random player who ever sat out a year? Tom Skladany, a punter drafted in the second round by the ’77 Browns. (Slusher again.) I guarantee this column becomes the first Google result for any “Tom Skladany” search.
Holdout Type No. 7: The “This Is A Thinly Veiled Excuse To Skip Training Camp Because I’m Either Being Lazy Or Because I’m Making a Statement Against The Man” holdout
As perfected by Walter Jones, Seattle’s All-Pro left tackle who held out for three straight years from 2002 to 2004 because he was pissed that the Seahawks kept franchising him, only he’d miraculously show up before Week 1 every time. Of course, there’s a cousin for this one …
Holdout Type No. 8: The “This Looks Like A Convoluted Excuse To Just Skip Training Camp, But Really, I’m Lawfully Extorting My Team And My Fans” Holdout
As first perfected by Roger Clemens, someone who was much dumber and much smarter than we thought he was. In 2006 and 2007, Clemens pretended he was retiring when, really, he was just trying to make as much money for as little work possible. Both the 2006 Astros ($12.25 million for 15 weeks of work) and 2007 Yankees ($18 million for four months of work) were suckered in. And it would have kept happening if Brian McNamee didn’t turn Clemens into a national disgrace during the winter of 2007-08.
Three years later, there’s a chance Brett Favre might be borrowing from Clemens’ playbook. He says his surgically repaired ankle doesn’t feel right. Do you believe him? Is the ankle being treated by the same doctors who treated LeBron’s phantom elbow injury that miraculously disappeared the moment he signed with Miami? (Uh-oh, I forgot, he’s taking mental notes!) I just know that the Vikings are a Super Bowl contender. It’s an uncapped year. The dropoff from Favre to the Tarvaris Jackson/Sage Rosenfels combo is roughly the difference between opening “Inception” with Leo DiCaprio versus opening it with Screech. Really, Favre can name his price … and as he’s naming it, he can pretend that his ankle still aches, that the fire might be gone, that he doesn’t know if he can handle another pounding like the one he took in the NFC title game … and meanwhile, that price keeps climbing and Minnesota fans (and teammates and coaches) keep panicking every time they think of Sage throwing another grounder or Tarvaris coughing up another moonball. If Favre is milking this ankle injury to boost his price, he’s an evil genius.
I bet Favre stays “retired” through the preseason, knowing that Minnesota’s first five weeks shape up like this:
Week 1: at New Orleans
Week 2: home for Miami
Week 3: home for Detroit
Week 4: Bye week
Week 5: at Jets (Monday night)
He could return during the bye, make his debut on Monday night (in New York, no less), play a 13-week regular season, save himself training camp miles and a Week 1 pounding … and make the same money. And that’s his worst-case scenario. What if the Sage/Tarvaris combo falls apart? What if the Vikes start out 1-2 or … (gulp) … 0-3? How much leverage would he have then? Could he get $20 million for 13 games plus playoffs? What about $25 million? That’s why I used the phrase “lawfully extorting,” because it’s perfectly legal but it’s also extortion (a word that basically means “inflicting pain or suffering to get what you want”). Minnesota will suffer without Favre, and so will its fans. He knows this. But instead of doing the right thing and either saying, “Pay me a ton of money and I’ll play again” or “My ankle’s screwed up, I’m too old, it’s time to go,” he’s being a greedy attention hog and milking the situation. Like always. I cannot defend this type of holdout.
Type No. 9: The “Look, I Outperformed My Deal, I Am Woefully Underpaid And You F—— Know It” Holdout
Perfected by Emmitt Smith, who made peanuts compared to Troy Aikman heading into their first Super Bowl defense, asked for a new deal, didn’t get one, then walked until Jerry Jones finally rectified things. Being a stubborn billionaire, Jones decided on a staring contest. The Cowboys lost in Week 1. The Cowboys lost in Week 2. So much for the staring contest. Emmitt had a four-year contract for $13.6 million before Week 3. And yes, the ’93 Cowboys ended up winning the Super Bowl again. Maybe the only holdout that still generates fond memories for everyone involved. Even Jones.
We see one of these holdouts every football season. This year it’s Darrelle Revis of the J-E-T-S Jets Jets JETS! A biggie because of the stakes (they’re a Super Bowl contender), his talents (best lockdown corner in the league), his nickname (Revis Island, one of the best in years), his television show (HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which started this week with the Revis talks as Storyline A) and the media market itself (New Yooooo-oooooork, concrete jungle where dreams are made of … ).
You know the details by now: Revis signed a $30 million, six-year rookie deal with $11 million guaranteed in 2007; outperformed it for two years; watched Oakland give rival corner Nnamdi Asomugha a three-year, $45.3 million deal ($28.3 million guaranteed) in April 2009; outplayed Asomugha in 2009; then expected the Jets to renegotiate his deal last spring. Nope. Instead of playing for a 2010 cap figure 15 times less than Asomugha, Revis refused to report. And to this point, I agreed with everything he did. Wholeheartedly.
It goes back to the John Hannah thing: Unless you know what it’s like to be consumed by the fact that you’re underpaid, you can’t judge someone like Revis. You can’t blame them for an occasional outburst, or erratic behavior, or even taking their ball and going home. In a perfect world, we want elite athletes to say, “Maybe my paycheck doesn’t reflect how good I am yet, but someday it will.” But if you have unwavering self-confidence, you can’t say that. You want everything. You want to be the best, you want to be regarded as the best, and you want to be paid the most. You know who held up their teams for two contract renegotiations apiece? Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Two of the most unselfish athletes ever. It’s part of the package. Like Chris Rock’s joke about dad always getting the biggest chicken leg at dinner. Superstars want the biggest chicken leg, too. And it has little to do with how hungry they are.
Now here’s where I differ with Revis: The Jets shouldn’t be penalized because the dumbest team in football set an unrealistic financial ceiling for cornerbacks, just like three college friends shouldn’t be penalized by their girlfriends because their fourth buddy just dropped $50,000 on an engagement ring. (Nobody else’s girlfriend would ever say, “Whipped Buddy No. 4 set the engagement ring ceiling, you have to spend that much on me.” They’d just file it away, let it fester for years and then unleash it in a drunken argument years later, then claim they didn’t mean it. But at that point, who cares?) I predict that Revis signs a new deal by the last episode of “Hard Knocks” — for a little less annually than Asomugha, but more years overall — in a plot twist that ranks on the Preconceived By Reality Producers Scale somewhere between the barbecue chicken falling on Snooki last week and Spencer and Heidi getting married without a marriage license.
Type No. 10: The “You Betrayed Me, And By the Way I’m Starting To Truly Hate You, But I’m Not Saying Any Of This Because It Might Affect The Team; I’m Just Trusting That You’ll Do The Right Thing, And If You Don’t, I WILL Get My Revenge” Non-Holdout Holdout
As perfected by Scottie Pippen, underpaid for his first 28 seasons on the Bulls … only he loved his teammates and Phil Jackson too much to walk, so he acted out without ever fully torpedoing anything. (During his final Chicago season, he rebelled by delaying foot surgery and missed the first 35 regular-season games: technically a holdout, but not really.) I always felt bad for Pippen — he was victimized by bad advice, bad agents and a Chicago front office that kept treating him like a steal of an eBay bid.
And now, I feel bad for Tom Brady, which means I feel bad for a handsome guy with two healthy kids, three Super Bowl rings, $100 million in the bank and a wealthy supermodel for a wife. Funny. He’s finishing a six-year, $60 million deal ($26.5 million guaranteed) signed in 2005, one year after Peyton Manning’s colossal seven-year, $99 million deal. At the time, we hailed Brady for leaving money on the table and needled Manning for selfishly grabbing as much cash as he could. And for the next five years, the franchise that spent enough to keep its core around its expensive franchise quarterback was … wait a second … Indianapolis???
Yup. The Colts consistently paid market value for their own players in a concerted effort to maintain continuity and do right by Manning, sometimes overpaying to protect that Colts DNA. (Of their big-ticket guys, only Edgerrin James was pushed out the door.) By contrast, the value-conscious Patriots lost too much of their DNA; guys like Adam Vinatieri, Deion Branch, Richard Seymour, Daniel Graham, Asante Samuel, Tully Banta-Cain and Willie McGinest were always deemed expendable. In some cases, they were. But how much winning DNA can you lose before you’re not the same team anymore?
Branch’s departure was a perfect example: A beloved locker room guy and Brady’s favorite target, Branch wanted to be paid like a No. 1 receiver (which he wasn’t) and not an elite possession receiver (which he was). His leverage: Without him, the Patriots were screwed heading into the 2006 season. The Patriots shrugged and dealt him for a future No. 1; Branch got paid by Seattle; and the Patriots lost the AFC title game because they didn’t have a single receiver who could get open on the biggest third-and-4 of the game. They win that title with Branch. I will believe that until the day I die.
Now, imagine you’re Brady.
You left money on the table that your team rarely used (only splurging in 2007). You watched them repeatedly roll over high picks so “next year” would be the windfall instead of just cashing them in during your prime. Now you’re 33 years old with a surgically repaired knee. You’re playing for a paltry $6.5 million during an uncapped season — repeat: an uncapped season — during the same year that rookie Sam Bradford just signed for $50 million guaranteed. You thought for sure the Patriots would renegotiate that deal when the time came, and they even promised as much — the old, “We need to stretch the signing bonus out for cap purposes and add an extra year, but don’t worry, when we get there, we’ll rip it up” routine — only they’re now pretending to have amnesia. And by the way, you won three Super Bowls and helped sell out their stadium for nine solid years.
How do you feel right now? Well, you’re one hit away from being damaged goods. You have an owner who pretends to be lavish (he’s far from it) and evolved into one of the league’s most powerful figures; with the collective bargaining agreement expiring, he’s not screwing things up for other owners by ripping up your deal, giving you a mega-extension and having the players’ union say, “See, you guys can’t cry poverty, Kraft just gave Brady all that money!” No, he’s going to keep doing what he’s been doing for months — pretend he wants to extend you, drag things along, then franchise your dumb ass for $12 million next spring. He’s banking on the fact that you’re Tom Brady, you’re the leader of the team, you’ve already made more than enough money, you care about winning more than anything else, and you have that Nash-ian side that would never allow you to put yourself above the team. He’s playing you, basically.
He knows you too well. You won’t rock the boat. You will say and do all the right things. You will smile for the cameras, shrug off the contract stuff, refuse to take the bait from local media, then take out all your frustrations on the opponents. You will do this because you’re the leader and that’s what leaders do. But you also know Kraft has a stadium to fill and suites that run on 10-year leases. In 2002, this wasn’t a problem: new stadium, defending champ, good economy. These are different times. And if you’re holding out or demanding a trade? Gulp. Bob Kraft has a better chance of bringing back the USFL than selling out his stadium in the HD/SundayTicket/65-Inch TV Era without three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
So you bide your time. Say the right things. Smile at the right times. Deep down, you’re seething. And you should be. You got screwed in 2005; you’re getting screwed now. You will give this man one more good year. One. That’s it. Unless he does the right thing, you’re done. That means your Patriots tenure has a definitive expiration date. And maybe it should.
I don’t know if Brady feels that way for sure. But he should feel that way … and that’s what scares me. See, athletes and agents are smarter than when I was growing up. Back in ’77, Leon Gray and John Hannah screwed up. They never should have caved when they did. But today, after five decades of learning from everyone else’s mistakes, athletes might be mastering the art of the holdout (and by proxy, the non-holdout). That means Brett Favre will keep milking that ankle injury. Darrelle Revis will keep playing chicken. And Tom Brady will keep biding his time and pretending everything is all right.
All three will get what they want. Eventually.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times best-seller “The Book of Basketball.” For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.