By Daniel Bukszpan
When people hear the term "terrible sports contract," two assumptions are often made. First, the agreement in question must have been orchestrated by a greedy team owner with terms deliberately designed to bilk the athlete. Second, the athlete must have been a young rube who signed the contract without consulting a lawyer first. While this scenario has surely played out many times in the past, it’s not the only one that’s possible.
Sometimes, a terrible contract is actually terrible for the franchise. In these cases, the team can be forced to live with the unintended consequences for several years, at a cost of millions of dollars. It’s often a compound humiliation as well, as any agreement between the player and the team has almost certainly been drafted and vetted over the course of many billable hours by the team’s own very expensive attorneys.
Unfortunately for franchise owners, there is no legal team on Earth that can protect them from short-sighted management decisions, or from trades that didn’t work out as expected. So as hard as it may be to believe a major sports organization wouldn’t have all their contractual ducks in a row, it happens, sometimes at a cost nobody anticipated.
What are some of the sports contracts that had terrible consequences for the teams that wrote them?
On July 28, 2011, the Washington Redskins traded Albert Haynesworth to the New England Patriots, and parted ways with a player who cost them a lot of money. His performance with the Tennessee Titans had caused The New York Times to describe him as “the most dominant defensive tackle in the league,” and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder acquired him on his first day of free agency with a $100 million, seven-year contract.
Haynesworth was repeatedly penalized for disciplinary reasons, and he openly criticized his team’s defensive coordinator in the press, a big no-no for any athlete. In 2010 he failed a team physical and was mocked by the satirical publication The Onion with the headline, "Report: Albert Haynesworth Just A Mound Of Ice Cream And Hot Dogs." He earned an unpaid suspension from the team in December 2010 for "conduct detrimental to the club," and this cost him approximately $847,000. However, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to his $100 million contract, 41 percent of which is guaranteed.
Alex Rodriguez is a living legend. Since his 2004 debut with the New York Yankees he’s been declared one of the best players in baseball, and he’s broken longstanding records, including a home run record set by Babe Ruth. In 2007 the Yankees signed him to a 10-year contract worth $275 million, and it was the highest-paying contract in the history of the sport.
The previous record was a 10-year, $252 million contract from the Texas Rangers that also went to Alex Rodriguez. Despite his nearly flawless performance with the team, the team decided that his contract was simply too expensive, and he was traded to the New York Yankees, buying out the remainder of his contract for $67 million. Rodriguez went on to excel as a Yankee, and it had to be tough for the Rangers to see the player the team had just traded leading his new team to the World Series, while still paying him to do so.
Alexei Yashin is a Russian hockey player. The New York Islanders acquired him from the Ottawa Senators in 2001 for a 10-year, $87.5 million contract, and the team made it to the playoffs, something they hadn’t managed in eight years. Sadly, that was the high point, and fans and the sport's commentary alike noticed that his performance was slipping.
Yashin suffered a knee injury in 2006 that sidelined him until the following year. After a disappointing return to the team, the Islanders called it a day and bought out what was left of his contract for $17 million. This decision ultimately amounted to a recurring nightmare for the team’s bottom line, as it has requires them to keep paying him over $2 million a year until 2015.
Bobby Bonilla was an outfielder for several baseball teams, notably the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Mets. He committed 67 errors in two seasons as a Pirates third baseman, but despite that record he was signed to the Mets in 1992 for a five-year contract worth $29 million. He left the team in 1995 for the Baltimore Orioles, but returned in 1999.
Bonilla’s performance was a disappointment, and the Mets decided to cut him loose. However, he still had a year left on his contract and almost $6 million left of his salary. Rather than just cut him a check and get rid of him, the team made a deal to defer payment for 12 years, and it would accrue interest annually at 8%. The deal sure worked out for Bonilla, who received his first $1,193,248 check in July 2011 and will keep getting them every year until 2035.