There’s an old adage in the legal profession, occasionally attributed to Abraham Lincoln but likely pre-dating him, that says, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
Like a lot of aphorisms, it’s rooted in truth — the law is complicated, and navigating its intricacies usually requires expertise, intelligence and a measure of clarity, all qualities that tend to be lacking in the average defendant.
Sports agents often own law degrees, and the league’s collective bargaining agreement is very nearly as complicated as the United States legal code, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to apply the “fool” idiom to contract negotiations. But if you’ve been reading the plethora of short-sighted commentary from old-school NFL circles, you’ve seen it used incorrectly against new 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.
Sherman, who was introduced at a press conference this week that featured all of his typical brash eloquence, operated without an agent in negotiating his new three-year deal with Santa Clara. Detractors were easy to find, and Sherman responded to those critics — some directly, the rest in a Players’ Tribune piece.
Those responses, though distinctly Shermanesque in tone, serve as historical record of a highly intelligent individual’s clear and thoughtful approach to a complicated and nuanced situation. Whatever you think of the financial results of his self-negotiated deal, there’s no doubt Sherman’s eyes were wide open throughout the process.
In the Players’ Tribune, Sherman admits he “knew it would be a big challenge … But also, I wanted to be represented by somebody who was going to look out for my best interest and nothing else.” Too often players forget that agents are working for them, and not the other way around — Sherman removed the possibility of that potential problem.
Beyond that, bargaining without a representative eliminated any chance for miscommunication during the process or discord over the result — as Sherman points out, “agents negotiate bad deals all the time,” and by handling it himself he can be sure that he got a deal he’s fully comfortable with, or at least have nobody to blame but himself.
Maybe more to the point, Sherman does a good job of laying out why he made the choices he did and how he and the 49ers settled on some of the particular points of the deal. He makes a point of referencing the appeal of Kyle Shanahan, who he says “made one hell of a pitch. He has an incredible football mind — he’s just a great tactician — and we talked for hours about different schemes and about his vision for the team.”
There is a cynical set that will write this off as ex-post facto qualitative justification for a deal that fails to meet quantitative benchmarks, but to be frank — I hate those people. Refusing to take Sherman on his word here is needlessly negative and infuriatingly obnoxious.
It’s not that their ugly picture of the world is so wrong; follow the money is a good piece of advice for getting to the bottom of anything in 2018. But suggesting that it’s impossible for a player to value anything outside of money is not just depressing, it’s either ignorant or deliberately obtuse. It may not be common practice, but it happens with decent regularity — David West’s contractual decisions always jump to mind as an easy example.
As for the financial specifics of the deal, Sherman is happy to share his thought process. He talks about studying contractual language with help from the union, about points he negotiated in his favor to assure certain guarantees and about places he gave back to the 49ers to protect the franchise if he is injured or unproductive. It reads like a reasonable back-and-forth between two parties operating in good faith.
“Basically,” as Sherman puts it, “If I never get back to the Richard Sherman everybody has become accustomed to seeing on the field, the 49ers are protected. They won’t overpay for somebody who’s not on the field and who’s not playing at a high level. And if I do get back to that level — which I fully intend to do — then I’ll be compensated accordingly.”
It’s exactly the sort of bet-on-yourself contract that you would expect a self-assured player of Sherman’s ilk to look for in free agency. It’s exactly the kind of deal that a player who was truly calling the shots would ask his agent to negotiate for him, and Sherman may have saved over a million dollars by doing it himself.
As someone who likely will never see a bank account hit seven figures, that strikes me as real savings. That said, I’m not here to argue that every NFL player should fire his agent, and Sherman is careful to say that, “while I don’t think every player should negotiate his own contract — it’s not for everybody — I felt I was up to the task.”
It would be fair to ask why he felt that way, but the answer seems relatively straightforward. Sherman is not your grandfather’s NFL player — he’s not even your grandchildren’s NFL player — he’s a wholly unique and special individual.
He’s smarter than the average NFL player (hell, he’s smarter than the average American by a lot) and significantly better educated than most people, with a Stanford undergrad degree and at least part of a master’s.
Maybe more importantly, his football education is virtually unparalleled — Sherman walking into negotiations with the 49ers is not like me walking into a courtroom armed with nothing but a strong LSAT score and admission to a local law school. He’s been in the league for seven years, he’s seen contracts negotiated, he knows the lay of the land.
And he’s not afraid. He’s betting on himself, he knows it and he spoke directly “to anyone who wants to criticize me for the three-year deal I negotiated that’s full of incentives … come back and talk to me in three years.”
No matter what happens, I think we can expect Sherman to be available and willing to have that conversation. And whether he’s just finished a lucrative three-year stint with the 49ers or he’s been out of the league for two years, I expect I’ll have good reason to repeat then the words I leave you with now: Richard Sherman is no fool.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.