However this most recent twist in the Lamar Jackson contract saga plays out, it’s fair to say this with absolute certainty: It’s completely horrifying.
Let’s back up for a moment and run through the details. On Thursday, the NFLPA informed the NFL management council that a man named Ken Francis, who is not a certified agent, was contacting clubs and trying to negotiate on Jackson’s behalf. A memo prepared by the management council was leaked to a select few insiders and disseminated to the world at large. Jackson quote tweeted one of those reporters—Tom Pelissero, who had added that Francis was a “Florida man who most recently was pitching a home fitness invention”—and the quarterback denied that Francis was negotiating on his behalf.
Let’s consider three possible explanations for the genesis of this exchange.
• If Jackson was denying the report simply to stave off embarrassment, and he really didn’t know that a home fitness professional without NFLPA certification couldn’t simply phone the Colts and say “let’s dance, partner,” it would be fair to worry that Jackson was harming his greatest chance to attain generational wealth.
• If Jackson was working with someone he thought he could trust, and then that person went rogue and began somehow contacting teams without Jackson’s consent, it would be fair to worry that there are bad actors trying to penetrate his tight inner circle.
• If something like a benign comment by Francis, for example, was misinterpreted as an attempt to negotiate with a club and the NFLPA and management council made a Big Deal out of the whole thing, leaking it publicly to embarrass Jackson and try to headlock him into using an agency or stopping his very public pursuit of a fully guaranteed contract that NFL owners do not want to make a regular business habit, it would be fair to worry about the whole-hog force the league was bearing down on Jackson with to prevent him from earning what is rightfully his.
Either way, Jackson and his supporters can’t be feeling good about this latest bit of attention paid to his ongoing contract standoff. Jackson would not be the first player to mistakenly associate with a noncertified agent and believe that person could help him negotiate a deal—if that scenario were true. Jackson would not be the first person taken advantage of by an outside business partner—if that scenario were true. Jackson would not be the first person the NFL tried to make feel small and silly—if that’s what is happening here. But he might be the biggest, and his case the most consequential. Because Jackson wants what few players in this league have ever had—complete financial independence and a fully guaranteed salary—there is no shortage of folks who are going to try to make that difficult. At the moment, the only tools at Jackson’s disposal to defend himself are a cell phone keypad and a couple of emoji; a pea shooter against a fully armed militia.
It’s hard not to side with Jackson here, to want to break into the Ravens’ bank vault and just hand him a brick of cash (that’s how this stuff works, right, every team has a comically large bank vault like the Red Sox in The Town?). Throughout his entire football life, there have been people trying to convince him that he could not do what he has already done. There have been people who have told him (and anyone else who will listen) that he can play football only a certain way. There are now people discouraging him from being the kind of businessman that he wants to be.
How could Jackson trust anybody? Why should he, really?
In that way, I—all of us, really—need to be careful not to patronize Jackson. His inner circle helped him just fine back when Bill Polian was telling the world he was a wide receiver. For all we know, this could be part of his plan. There has been no shortage of folks in the NFL and its ecosystem who have tried to get a piece of him for years now and, without them, all he’s done is set records as a runner, lead the league in touchdown passes as a thrower, win the league’s Most Valuable Player award and get selected to two Pro Bowls.
If his tweet to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, which suggested the Ravens have already offered him $133 million guaranteed over three years, is correct, he has already positioned himself close to the Deshaun Watson contract in terms of average money per year (Watson is making a fully guaranteed $46 million per season, while Jackson would be making $44.3 million fully guaranteed, which would place him just below Patrick Mahomes in terms of average annual value). He could be doing just fine.
It’s just difficult to watch at the moment. The narrative has escalated far beyond the typical media games played with athletes seeking big contracts (Daniel Jones wants $45 million!? Ridiculous! O.K., here’s $40 million). First, Jackson was signed to a nonexclusive franchise tag by the Ravens and slapped with a uniform string of denials from almost every quarterback-needy team in existence, almost as if they were standing in the batter’s box and knew what pitch was coming. Next, he was retweeting NFL insiders and correcting them on the amount of guaranteed money he’d already been offered. Now, he’s being lampooned without proper context, forced to defend himself from a position of relative solitude—a place in which perhaps he feels most comfortable.
But that existence has to be anything but comfortable now. With the introduction of another character potentially working on Jackson’s behalf, the entire situation has played right into the hands of the NFL reality show machine. The hope is that he’ll do what he has always done, and make those who doubted him look stupid in hindsight. The reality looks a bit more grim.