Justin Scott // Columnist
Contract disputes are just as common across the sports world as they are the music world. This past weekend was a shining example of this. Days after Lil Wayne’s long-awaited Tha Carter V dropped, so did the Seattle Seahawks All-Pro safety, Earl Thomas III. While Wayne’s album release was a triumphant moment for the Southern rapper, Thomas’ broken leg was the worst-case scenario ending to an already tumultuous situation.
Tha Carter V was slated to release years ago, but due to a legal battle with his label, the album was held hostage for years. And, due to his contract, Wayne couldn’t release any other studio albums. While a football player’s contract holdout isn’t exactly the same as Wayne’s, it’s hard to ignore the similarities.
Thomas had been involved in a season-long holdout with the Seahawks. He was seeking a long-term contract with guaranteed money from the organization, or to be traded to another team. As a Super Bowl champion, six-time Pro Bowl participant and three-time NFL First Team All-Pro, Thomas certainly has the resume to demand a payday. His holdout saw him miss the team’s training camp and pre-season, eventually returning for the regular season opener to collect his game cheque (much of an NFL player’s salary comes in the form of weekly game cheques. For every game Thomas missed, he would have lost out on roughly $500,000 USD). Once the season began, Thomas continued his holdout by attending practices but not participating. Instead, he only played in games. His reasoning was that he wanted to avoid injury until he had guaranteed money – a concern that clearly wasn’t unfounded.
Much like Thomas’, Wayne’s dispute with his label was financial. Wayne felt he was owed money by his long-time label Cash Money Records and was seeking to leave the imprint while suing them for $51 million USD. He felt he was underappreciated and was being taken advantage of – and he hasn’t been the only musician to feel this way.
Over the past decade, due to the rise of streaming platforms and hip hop’s mixtape culture, music labels have lost much of their power. Artists can now release music on their own, without any sort of backing. In fact, many upcoming musicians simply start their own labels in order to get around the difficulty of attaining a record deal and having to give up creative control and ownership of their music, in addition to large sums of money.
Athletes on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. While music streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music allow almost any artist to share their music, the same kind of freedom and independence doesn’t apply in the world of sports. Leagues are like the streaming platforms and teams are the labels – just think of Spotify as being the NFL and Cash Money Records as being the Seahawks. The difference however, is that while artists need no label affiliation to post their tracks on music platforms, players need a team to compete in their respective leagues, which gives the teams almost all the power. While Thomas’ holdout has made headlines all season long, it hasn’t been the most discussed.
Le’veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers has held out for the first four games of the season, and apparently intends to do so for at least a few more weeks. So far, he’s cost himself nearly $3.5 million USD. Bell’s holdout is just as much about his health as it is his pride. He’s one of the most dynamic and exciting football players in the game today and believes he should be paid as such. Of course, he already makes a fortune, but it’s not exactly unfair to want to be paid in accordance to what one brings to an organization compared to their co-workers.
Much like Wayne not being able to release music on any other music label due to his contractual obligations to Cash Money, Thomas and Bell are unable to play for or receive a contract from any other team unless their teams trade them or until they reach free agency.
The good news for the players is that although they don’t have the same freedoms that streaming platforms have given artists, they’re getting more power.
Three years ago, another Seattle Seahawk, Kam Chancellor, underwent a similar holdout to Thomas and Bell. He skipped the team’s training camp, pre-season and the first two games of the regular season. Although he returned for the third game of that season with no new contract, when he did sign his next deal, it was a good one. His three-year $36 million deal saw much of the money guaranteed. So, when his career was ended later that season by a neck injury, Chancellor wasn’t left out to dry. As of now, he’s collected around $25 million of the deal.
So, although team sports don’t allow the same autonomy that streaming platforms do to musicians, there’s no denying that athletes, much like musicians, are shifting their respective industries’ power structures. By demanding more of their contract money to be guaranteed, players are giving themselves an insurance policy on their careers – something football players are especially in need of due to the physical nature of the game.
Unfortunately for Thomas, he never got his new contract. And while he’ll certainly have offers once his leg has healed, they’ll be nothing compared to what he would have gotten had he continued his play this season. Really, young artists starting their own labels isn’t much different than Thomas flipping the bird to his sideline as he was carted off the field, only the artists have more power over their careers.