SBJ/June 19 - 25, 2000/Labor Agents

NFL union poised to take on Bengals over ‘no criticism’ clause in contracts

The NFL Players Association will fight the Cincinnati Bengals over a contract clause requiring players to give back their signing bonuses if they make public, derogatory comments about the team or coach.

The requirement violates the collective-bargaining agreement, said Richard Berthelsen, NFL Players Association general counsel. "It's a huge infringement on First Amendment rights, and there is no way that under the CBA a fine would stick."

There will be efforts to persuade the team and league to remove the clause, Berthelsen said.

If that fails, he said, the union would "sooner or later" file a grievance that would have to be resolved by an arbitrator.

Jack Brennan, Bengals public relations director, said he thinks the contracts will stand.

Joe Browne, NFL spokesman, said, "As far as we are concerned, it is a matter of individual negotiation and does not violate any rules or policies that we agreed to with the union."

Already one player, right tackle Willie Anderson, who last month signed a six-year, $31 million contract, agreed to the clause.

Anderson "is not going to go out and say anything derogatory about the team," said Terry Bolar, his agent.    

But at least two agents have advised players not to sign the clause, which they say was added to contracts at the last minute.

Robert Bean, a rookie cornerback from Mississippi State, was about to sign but balked when he saw the language, said his agent, Steve Weinberg.

Wesley Spencer, who represents Curtis Keaton, a running back from James Madison University picked in the fourth round, said he and his client agree with the principle of not publicly criticizing the team but don't think that principle should be tied to a signing bonus, especially one "so open-ended" that Keaton might be afraid to say anything to the media.

"If a reporter were to ask Curtis, when he was coming out of the game, 'How did you do?' and he said, 'We stunk,' they could take his signing bonus away," Spencer said.

Brennan said the clause is meant to stop comments such as one made last year by Bengals wide receiver Carl Pickens, who said the team should not have retained head coach Bruce Coslet. It would not be used to penalize minor, negative comments about a game, such as players saying the team should have run one play instead of another, Brennan said.

Spencer said, "The Bengals can say what it is going to mean, but that is not what it says on paper."

AMG GETS HOT ON THE ICE: Michael Ovitz could make a big splash in hockey this year. His Artists Management Group represents some potentially high picks for the NHL draft.

Notably, AMG represents Marian Gaborik, a Slovakian left winger who could be picked No. 1 overall in Sataurday's draft, said Allan Walsh, co-head of the AMG hockey division.

Walsh and his partner, David Schatia, sold their hockey representation business, Can-Am Sports Management, to AMG in January. Can-Am was formed in 1995.

This could be the best draft year ever for the two partners. They represent 15 prospective draft picks and high-quality players such as Gaborik, Walsh said.

Walsh said Gaborik's main competition for the No. 1 slot are Rostislav Klesla, a defenseman from the Canadian junior hockey league, and Dany Heatley, a left winger from the University of Wisconsin.

Klesla is represented by agent Jiri Crha. Heatley, a great scorer whom many consider the top choice, had no agent as of last week.

In addition to Gaborik, AMG also represents Scott Hartnell, a right winger/center who plays for Canadian Junior League team Prince Albert and could be drafted in the top five, Walsh said.

HOST GOES E-FISHING: SFX Sports signed pro bass fisherman Denny Host to a multiyear endorsement deal for eangler.com, a fishing Internet site.

Host, the first angler ever featured on a Wheaties cereal box, will supply regular articles, make appearances and be used in advertising.

Host's son Chad, who joined the pro circuit in 1995 but is not represented by SFX Sports, will also provide endorsement services for eangler.com.

The value of the deal was not disclosed.

MIHM SIGNS CARD DEALS: Top NBA draft prospect Chris Mihm signed two trading card deals collectively valued at more than $100,000, sources said.

Mihm signed a deal with Press Pass in the unlicensed category and a deal with Upper Deck in the licensed category. Mihm is represented by sports marketing agency Octagon.

Liz Mullen can be reached at lmullen@amcity.com.

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