If you want a good reminder of just how cynical and perverse your average NFL franchise can be, look no further than Kyler Murray’s new contract.
As everyone is aware by now, the Arizona Cardinals’ franchise quarterback just signed a five-year, $230 million deal with the team that includes a clause stipulating that the contract can be voided if Murray fails to engage in four hours per week of “independent study.” It’s a clause that is not only patronizing and demeaning in its language, but also useless in its application—how exactly would this be enforced? All of which leads one to wonder what exactly the Cardinals’ angle is here, and who thought it would be a good idea to publicly smear the reputation of their star quarterback while simultaneously handing him a huge payday?
The first question seems fairly easy to answer: The Cardinals are making sure that they have an established scapegoat going forward. I doubt anyone in the organization actually believes that a few extra hours of film study per week is going to alter the course of Murray’s career, and given how well he’s played during his first three seasons, apparently without engaging in extra film study, one might conclude that extra film study is overrated. Again, the Cardinals know all this, which makes it easy to read the “independent study” clause as some kind of failsafe, inserted into the contract for the sake of getting out of paying the rest of Murray’s contract should he or the team regress over the next few years to the point that ownership wants to hit the reset button. But I don’t think that’s entirely what’s going on here. After all, teams are already pretty adept at wriggling out from under contracts—Murray’s contract only comes with $160 million guaranteed—and then there’s the aforementioned issue of how such a clause would even be enforced. It seems much more likely to me that this was a calculated PR maneuver by the team. Knowing that all contracts are filed to the league office, and visible to dozens if not hundreds of people, the Cardinals knew such an unusual clause would shortly be leaked.
And to what end? Making sure that when things do eventually go sideways for this currently ascendant organization—of course it will happen, it’s the Cardinals—the owner and the front office will already have two hands firmly placed on Murray’s back, ready to shove him into traffic. “Kyler Murray is lazy” is now more or less a matter of historical record thanks to this contract clause, and it is something that anyone in the Cardinals organization can point to at any time in the future should they find themselves needing to shield their own reputations. (It’s also an uneasily familiar label, especially when used on black quarterbacks.)
This is obviously a shitty way for any organization to treat one of its employees—any sane person who ran an NFL team would wake up every day and thank god that they get to pay Kyler Murray $230 million rather than employ Drew Lock—but this is just another inevitable consequence of the people who run sports teams seeing their jobs as an exercise in asset management and nothing else. That’s been the case for a long time, but the Cardinals are breaking new ground here in that they are not only publicly hedging their investment in Murray in a material sense, but a reputational one. It’s not enough that the Cardinals could release Murray at a moment’s notice and avoid paying him almost half of what he signed for; they want to reserve the right to do so and be the virtuous ones for it.
One can imagine a grim future in which these sort of high-profile clauses become standard in the NFL—Lamar Jackson’s contract will void if his jewelry-related expenditures exceed $5 million in a calendar year—at which point NFL owners will have finally achieved the dream that all rich bastards pursue: the ability to do whatever the hell they want and never be blamed for it.