Every time Lamar Jackson advocates for himself, he shows us why he shouldn’t be the one doing it. He is clapping back against critics on Twitter, demanding respect and fair value and defending his toughness. He could be right on every single point. It doesn’t matter. He is fighting the wrong fights with the wrong people, and all he is really proving is that this is why players hire agents.
Jackson did not have an agent when he declined the Ravens’ contract offers last year, and he does not have one now, as he sits in franchise-tag purgatory. That is his right, just as it is his right to demand a fully guaranteed contract, or to insist on being the highest-paid player in the NFL if he chose. (To be clear, there is no indication he has insisted upon that.) Jackson knows the NFL is a chew-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out league, where relationships are transactional, friends fire friends and loyalty is a no-way street. He wants to get the most he can while he can. Completely understandable. Good for him. Saving the 3% agent fee (or even less, if an agent gave him a discount) is just not the way to go about it.
Negotiations are not just about value. They are about positioning, and to be blunt: A lot of the positioning is against the rules. An agent definitely would have advised Jackson on whether to accept the Ravens’ best offers, probably could have squeezed the team to offer more, and almost certainly would have come up with other, creative structures.
An agent could have reminded Jackson of the truth about NFL contracts: A fully guaranteed deal is not the only way to ensure a massive payday. Roster bonuses and trigger clauses give players a strong idea of how much they are sure to make, even if the money is not technically “guaranteed” (and therefore does not have to be put in escrow immediately.) Agents commonly negotiate for salaries to become fully guaranteed if a player is on the roster more than a year earlier. When that player is a starting quarterback, with a huge salary and a team designed around him, cutting him becomes extremely difficult. An agent could have shown Jackson that what seemed like a risk was actually a very safe bet on himself.
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Jackson still could have said no to every Ravens offer and every idea his agent had, because clients don’t work for agents—agents work for clients. But he would still be in a better spot than he is now: with the Ravens tagging him for $32.416 million and nobody else inclined to offer more (plus draft compensation).
An agent would have spent the last few months—or longer—surreptitiously feeling out the market, and asking important questions: Who are the other suitors? What would they be willing to offer? NFL rules prohibit franchises from talking to agents about players for other teams. But it happens all the time. The Dolphins did this with Tom Brady and his highly respected agent, Don Yee, while Brady was a Patriot. Miami happened to get caught, and had to forfeit draft picks because of it. But it happened all over the league before and is surely happening right now.
Telling players to hire agents can sound condescending or worse. It might seem like I am questioning players’ intelligence—which, let’s face it, would be a pretty gross thing for a white writer to do while writing about a predominantly Black league. But this is not about brains. I assume anybody who can play quarterback in the NFL as well as Jackson is very smart.
Negotiating contracts is a learned skill, and being your own advocate is hard. Almost everybody benefits from delegating negotiations to an expert who is not as emotionally invested as they are. This is why, in the literary world, agents who write their own books usually hire another agent to negotiate advances for them.
Teams understand this. This is why they don’t ask offensive coordinators to negotiate their quarterbacks’ contracts. They hire professional negotiators who are not as personally close or professionally tied to the quarterback. Jackson might think he empowered himself by being his own agent. In fact, he forfeited a weapon.
A good agent would have told Jackson what the market was. A good agent would have told Jackson if he was so sure about his own longevity, he should negotiate a shorter extension that allows him to become a free agent again relatively soon. A good agent would have told Jackson to keep his frustrations private, because Twitter outbursts will only hurt his chances of landing a bigger deal. Jackson has very clear ideas about his own value. But a good agent would have explained that negotiations are not about what Jackson thinks he is worth, or even what he is really worth. All that matters is what you can get somebody to pay. And if an agent had come to Jackson after all this time and said all he could drum up for a 26-year-old former league MVP was a single non-exclusive franchise tag, then I would have told Jackson to fire that agent and replace him with a good one.