Guaranteed Money in NFL Reporting Doesn't Mean What It Used To Mean

By Jason Lisk

It happened again. Adam Schefter reported that Ryan Tannehill was getting $45 million in guaranteed money. There was less than a one percent chance that this statement was actually going to be accurate. And that slim chance left town with the inevitable reporting on the distinction of “fully guaranteed”. This, of course, takes us back–as almost everything does–to The Princess Bride. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.

Mostly guaranteed, on the other hand, is pretty much not guaranteed. Reporters and networks keep using that word “guaranteed,” but I do not think it means what they think it means. How did we get here?

We used to get fantastical contract terms in articles, long before Twitter. That much is not a current social media invention, though the speed and immediacy of jumping on the numbers has changed.

For example, Heath Shuler was reported in traditional print media as signing the largest rookie deal ever back in 1994: an eight-year, $19 million contract. Some articles didn’t cite any other numbers; some mentioned a $5 million signing bonus. There was no use of the term of art “guaranteed money” in the reporting. A search for that phrase turns up a handful of articles in the 90s, most of which used it in generalities to talk about how NFL contracts had very little of it.

Articles on Vinny Testaverde’s contract with the Jets in 1999 noted the guaranteed money, a large figure of near $15 million. This, over the last 15 years, gradually became a more common feature of reporting. Those covering the sport, and the consumers of that reporting, were becoming more savvy, and learning to look past the over-inflated numbers and ask, “but what is the guaranteed money?”

That term developed its own meaning within the NFL community. It represented the amount that the player was guaranteed to get, no matter what happened from that point forward. It used to be all wrapped up in the initial signing bonus, but as contracts became more creative, would also include later payments.

Some reporters would still report the LARGEST CONTRACTS EVER based on whatever unlikely total number was attached if a player got to the end of a seven-year deal. The public, gradually, though, became more conditioned that it was only guaranteed money that mattered.

For the agent who wanted to put a big fake number out as a promotional tool, the game got harder. Enter the use of guaranteed money that wasn’t really guaranteed, at least in the sense that the term of art had developed within the NFL language.

A major part of it is this “guaranteed for injury” thing that has developed in recent years. If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything, except maybe a paycheck in the event you sign one of these deals and are really, really injured.

But reporting that player X is guaranteed to get a certain amount (when it’s guaranteed for injury only) would be like me reporting that I am guaranteed to make $5 million this year, when those guarantees are only conditioned on bad things like being the beneficiary of a life insurance policy kicking in. I mean, I guess you could come up with some twisted logic to say that I am also technically correct, but it certainly wouldn’t be a very truthful statement based on our common understanding of how the term has been used.

You can have a conditional guarantee, in a legal sense. But, in a practical sense, under the same logic, ALL money in a NFL contract is guaranteed. You are, for example, “guaranteed” to make $20 million in six years, on the condition that you are still on the roster, every bit as much as you are “guaranteed” to make $15 million in three years on the condition you have a career-ending injury.

But that’s not how the term was employed and used for well over a decade.

Yet, prominent reporters now have no qualms lumping them in together, complicit in delivering big numbers for the agents/sources on other news and stories. Adam Schefter was cited last year here for his numbers on the Kaepernick contract, and called out without specific name in Michael Wilbon’s rant on the topic. He came up again a few months later on the inaccurate numbers in Andy Dalton contract and another over-inflated guarantee.  ESPN is also complicit in this, as even this morning, hours after the real guarantee numbers have emerged, the bottom-line crawl is still referencing $45 million in guaranteed money.

I understand why the agents want this number out there, but why ESPN, and why Schefter? I suppose it’s to be the beneficiary of news on hugs later on. I suppose I am violating Schefter’s wish on not criticizing media, and while I agree that we should be more civil, I disagree with the idea that critiquing and questioning substantive methods of a profession is above reproach.

And in this case, I think media–and one where Schefter and ESPN are leaders in this particular industry–need to do better. “Guaranteed for injury” should not be lumped with “Guaranteed,” because they are not the same. Anyone who says different is trying to sell you something.