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Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Shoud Physicals Come Before Trades?

The recent failed Lee Suggs trade raises a curious aspect of the NFL regime for player trades. Two teams negotiate for the terms of a player’s reassignment, and once terms are “final,” the traded player reports to his new team. Only at that point does the new team conduct a medical examination of the traded player. The team gaining the player then faces a dichotomous choice: either declare the player has “failed” the physical, invalidating the trade, or declare that he has “passed,” such that the terms of the trade become finalized. Notably, the team conducting the physical does not have the option to renegotiate terms of the trade based on troubling, but not necessarily fatal medical discoveries. In addition, the team giving up the player has limited or no right to challenge the medical determination made by the acquiring team.

This is an odd way of trading, certainly foreign to most transactions in goods and services, and it may not represent the economically efficient arrangement. Consider the NFL trading regime as applied to, say, the sale of a used car. Let’s say I am selling a used car in which you are interested. As with a potential traded player in the NFL context, you have limited information about the vehicle in question; certainly, I, the seller of the vehicle, have more information. The NFL’s approach, applied to the auto context, would mean that you could look at film of other people driving the car (equivalent to watching film of an NFL player), but that you could neither test drive the car, nor take it to your friendly neighborhood mechanic, until after we had agreed to terms of the sale. Once we had inked the terms of the sale – and only then – you could take it and have someone more knowledgeable look under the vehicle’s hood, to see what it’s packing. At that point, the mechanic (presumably according to your instructions or specifications) could declare that the car either “passed” or “failed” its examination. If the car failed, you would be able to return it to me, along with a torn-up copy of our trade agreement. You would not be able to renegotiate a different price; nor would I have any power to challenge your assessment (or rather, your mechanic’s assessment) that the car was a lemon.

Can anyone imagine buying a used car this way? Yet that’s exactly how NFL trades seem to work. Wouldn’t more efficient trades be possible if the potential acquiring team could conduct a physical of the player before signing the terms of the deal? That way, the team would not face the “all-or-nothing” choice it does under the current regime. If the player were hobbled by some surprising injuries, the potential acquirer could negotiate for reductions in price (or, since trades aren’t for “cash” in American sports, other types of compensation).

To be sure, a proposal to allow pre-trade physicals might upset some players. After all, being physically examined would tip off the player that a trade was coming – something that a player under the current scheme might not find out until the deal is announced to the public. But at the same time, certainly players like Suggs would appreciate not being declared “physically unfit” to play the game – a moniker that can’t be good for a player’s next contract bottom line.

At a minimum, it seems that the NFL should clarify the standards under which teams are permitted to declare a player has “failed” his medical exam. That would reduce the likelihood of the kind of bad feeling expressed by the Cleveland Browns this week, according to the San Jose Mercury News:
The Browns released a statement that disputes the Jets' medical decision, with GM Phil Savage saying that Suggs will return to practice immediately.

"Medical opinions can vary from team to team, and obviously this is one team's opinion," Savage said.

Said Browns coach Romeo Crennel: "They've got a new regime down there, so maybe they're doing things a little differently. All I can say is the kid was practicing for us."


A failed physical is a loose loose situation. Either he fails and doesnt come, or he comes and presumably gets injured. What is the difference when the physical is taken, its not like he was used on the other team already?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/16/2006 9:04 PM  

In baseball, the teams can make the passing of a pre-trade physical a condition of the deal. However, even then, physicals don't often reveal the true health of the player. For example, while an MRI might reveal no structural damage to a pitcher's arm, that doesn't mean that the pitcher doesn't have a "tired arm".

Due diligence in any business setting, including sports, is only going to reveal so much. In the typical business transaction, the buyer obtains reps and warranties regarding the goods and insists that the seller contractually indemnify the buyer for their breach or damage to the goods/property to the extent it was caused pre-closing.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 8/16/2006 9:30 PM  

Interestingly, this is the way most home purchases work. You agree to a contract, and it is only after the contract is signed that the buyer gets to inspect the home. If the home fails the buyer's inspection, buyer may then terminate the contract.

In football, I'm not sure it makes much difference. Had the Jets and Browns agreed on a trade but agreed not to announce it before the players passed the physical, the news would have still gotten out as soon as the players were informed they needed to take a physical with the other team.

Anonymous john -- 8/17/2006 9:26 AM  

Once players are asked for a physical, they almost have to be traded. Keeping players afterwards creates a very tough locker room problem. The occasional failed physical is a small price to pay to avoid having disgruntled, almost traded players on your roster.
If both Clubs do their pre-physical due diligence, few players should fail. Sometimes the failed physical is a team doctor's reluctance to sign off on a player's condition.Players often have many years of top performance after "failing" another team's physical. And sometimes it is a Team's way of using the physical to renege on a trade.

Anonymous Yorgo -- 8/17/2006 3:14 PM  

If you had players take physicals in anticipation of a trade, it would be too much a a nuissance and a hassel to the players and the league. Players would have to take time out during the season and you would have players awkardly flying around the country. You cannot just "test drive" a person/player. People have, and always will get treated differently than machines.

Anonymous tommie -- 8/17/2006 4:24 PM  

As an ardent follower of the Browns for many years, I have both read as well as heard the words directly from Coach Crennel's mouth that Suggs hasn't missed a training camp practice, missed no mini-camp workouts 2 months ago, and played with no problems in the first exhibition game.

Seems to me, the Jets have been ridiculously cautious with a back with loads of potential to help their club enormously with Curtis Martin out. And, if my Browns have any sense, they'll keep Suggs for a long time and jettison William Green.

Anonymous Dave Burkey -- 8/18/2006 5:21 PM  

David Burkey's comment is the moist poignant here. It's within the Jets' rights to impose stricter medical standards than do the Browns. Why would anyone doubt that the Jets are disqualifying this trade for any reason other than that franchise's interests? I didn't read the specifics but just like a used car buyer might or might not except a new car with worn down and nearly bare brake pads, so might some teams (like the Browns) accept a guy with healthy but worn down ligaments (or muscle or bone or whatever).

We all know that team sports physicians have conflicts of interests -- they look out for the team's interests by doing anything possible to get the player to play while players end up with ravaged bodies after their careers. If the Jets' doctors say he can't play for the Jets, he can't play for the Jets.

Blogger some guy -- 8/18/2006 7:48 PM  

Does this look any different now that the Jets have acquired a new RB from San Francisco? One that many people feel is a better back. I seemed to hear some implications that the original Cleveland trade was voided because this one came about. I suppose that is something that could never be proved.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/21/2006 1:13 PM  

Guys, I'm unsure why "some guy" thought my original comments were the most poignant.

Let me say that certainly it is indeed within the Jets' "rights" to negate the deal based on their own criteria for medical exams. But my gut feeling here is that it may have something to do with having a new head coach on board and quite frankly them being too cautious plain and simple.

Let me reiterate, now Suggs has played in 2 exhibition games for the Browns, running very well not to mention very hard and like a man possessed. So, as I said, here's hoping my team keeps the guy and if Droughns were to go down, there's no doubt Suggs if he STAYS HEALTHY all year will have a big year for them. Better the Browns than the Jets.

As for Barlow being a better back, they are different backs, Barlow being bigger and more physical, Suggs being faster. But if I had my pick of the 2 , I'd take Suggs.

Anonymous Dave Burkey -- 8/22/2006 5:44 PM  

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