• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Earl Thomas' Middle Finger: A Sign of Things to Come?

By Richard Chakejian:

September 30th, 2018, was a symbolic moment for the National Football League that highlighted a major issue looming over this billion-dollar business. Earl Thomas is widely considered the best player at his position, a future hall of fame player, and one of the best overall players in the NFL. Last Sunday, Thomas suffered a season-ending injury when he broke his leg in the 4th quarter of the Seahawks game against Arizona Cardinals. While serious injuries are common in the NFL due to the sport’s inherent violence, this injury was especially noteworthy because of what occurred after. As Thomas was being carted off the field by the medical staff, he directed a certain hand gesture toward the Seattle Seahawks sideline (meant to be directed at the organization and not teammates). Earl Thomas’s middle finger to the Seattle Seahawks symbolized the major issue of a looming strike on behalf of the players when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires in 2021.[1]


Earl Thomas’ frustrations arose from a contract dispute with the Seahawks, centered around not receiving enough compensation, and particularly a lack of guaranteed money in his current contract. In other words, Thomas is one of the best individual performers in his industry, and he would like that to be reflected in his compensation, which he feels, is not currently happening. Furthermore, the middle finger he gave to the Seahawks illustrated the feelings of many players in the NFL toward management and ownership, and possibly the harsh stance the NFLPA will take during the next CBA’s contract negotiations.


Todd Gurley, a running back for the Los Angeles Rams, has publicly made comments about his expectation for a players’ strike, how players should be prepared for it, and his overall feelings about the ultimate issue of guaranteed money for the league’s players.[2] “Considering football’s level of brute, immanent physicality, high turnover as well as the short life cycle of its participants, it would seem to me that NFL players are in the most need of fully guaranteed contracts.” Russell Okung, a tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers, has also made similar comments expressing his frustration of players not receiving a big enough piece of the pie of NFL revenues. [3] “I will never understand how billionaire team owners have convinced the public that the players, who put their bodies on the line every week and make less than 50% of league revenue, are the ‘ungrateful’ ones.”


These examples of current players in the NFL provide evidence that players are prepared to go on strike in order to accomplish their demands for more compensation.[4] The leader and voice of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, has said that a lockout or strike is a “virtual certainty” when the current CBA expires. So, with the current players on board with Smith’s stance on this issue, the owners should expect a lockout to happen. Subsequently, the owners should begin to address and formulate a plan to avoid a work stoppage. Jodi Balsam, former attorney for the NFL, agrees with this notion, stating her belief that the decline in ratings and overall popularity is something for owners to consider in negotiations. “I think the owners in the long term have more to lose because fans are starting to get a little impatient with the NFL.”[5]


Given the circumstances, it is reasonable to expect a lockout in the NFL for the 2021 season. Furthermore, we can anticipate that players will succeed in their demand for obtaining more compensation from the owners. This past offseason, Kirk Cousins, was the first player in NFL history to receive a fully guaranteed contract.[6] This is an encouraging sign for players because it highlights the possibility that times are changing and owners will possibly consider embracing the change. However, at the end of the day this is a cut-throat, bottom-line business. Owners want the most profit possible and the players want to earn as much money as possible in the short window available to them. In conclusion, there will be an NFL lockout coming in the near future, and if the owners want to avoid that they must address the financial dispute that was highlighted by the actions of Earl Thomas.

[1] Over the Cap, Safety Contracts https://overthecap.com/position/safety/

[2] Adam Wells, Todd Gurley says NFL Players Must Prepare for Lockout in 2021 (July 20, 2018). https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2787001-todd-gurley-says-players-must-prepare-for-nfl-lockout-in-2021

[3] Vincent Frank, NFL Players Call For Guaranteed Contracts as Potential Work Stoppage Looms (July 5, 2018). https://www.forbes.com/sites/vincentfrank/2018/07/05/nfl-players-call-for-guaranteed-contracts-as-potential-work-stoppage-looms/#563da7672b76

[4] Al Neal, 2021: The Year of Football’s Great Labor War (September 12, 2018). https://www.complex.com/sports/2017/09/is-the-nfl-really-headed-for-a-lockout-2021

[5] Id.

[6] Mike Jones, Kirk Cousins Officially Signs three-year, $84 million deal with Minnesota Vikings (March 15, 2018). https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/vikings/2018/03/15/kirk-cousins-officially-signs-minnesota-vikings/419918002/