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THE CRIBBS CASE
The bizarre conflict between former Buffalo Bills running back Joe Cribbs and his new USFL club, the Birmingham Stallions, seems to center around confusion on Cribbs's part as to what his five-year, $2.45 million contract with the Stallions actually means. Cribbs signed the contract last June, successfully fought off (with the Stallions' help) a suit by the Bills, who were trying to keep him, and began playing with the Stallions in Birmingham in February when the 1984 USFL season began.
But Cribbs soon asked that his contract be renegotiated. That he and the club were talking renegotiation wasn't made public for about two months. Then, according to Cribbs, the Stallions broke off discussions. After playing in a 43-11 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, May 6 (which brought the Stallions' record to 9-2), Cribbs didn't show up for practice on the following Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday of last week the Stallions, apparently convinced that Cribbs was making good on a threat made by his agent, Louis Burrell, that he would walk out if negotiations didn't continue, filed a $20 million suit against Cribbs and Burrell for breach of contract and for "lessening and destroying" the value of the Stallions' franchise.
Birmingham club president Jerry Sklar issued a statement saying, "Three weeks after the 1984 season started, Joe Cribbs demanded we renegotiate his contract.... We told Joe that we already have a valid and enforceable contract with him.... In 1983 we signed Joe to a five-year contract for approximately $2.45 million, bringing him back to his native Alabama and making him a wealthy man at the same time. We stood behind him during his lawsuit against Buffalo.... We feel it is unfair...for Joe to make these demands and leave the team at this crucial point in the season."
Cribbs says, "I didn't quit the team. I expected to be fined for missing practice.... I was confused and upset [and] I drove to Sulligent [his hometown] to see my mother.... We've been negotiating since the second week of the season.... Both sides appeared willing to work something out."
Neither Cribbs nor Burrell would specify what they objected to in the contract Cribbs signed last June, when his agent was Jerry Argovitz, who relinquished Cribbs as a client after becoming an owner of the USFL's Houston Gamblers. But Cribbs says, "The contract is not what I thought it was when I signed it. There are serious dangers in it that I wasn't aware of."
The problem may lie in that $2 million-plus pie in the sky that Cribbs saw when he signed last June, and which shrinks a bit under close scrutiny. Although Sklar says the Stallions made Cribbs a wealthy man, that depends on what "wealthy" means. Cribbs's basic salary is $250,000 a season for the next five years, with only the first three guaranteed. He also is to earn deferred salary over those five seasons, a total of $550,000 (although only $100,000 of that is guaranteed—and payments to Cribbs don't begin until 1989). The contract also specified a signing bonus of $650,000—$200,000 was paid in 1983 and the remainder is to be spread over five years, beginning in 1986. And he is to receive a $350,000 interest-free loan, in payments spread over three years beginning in 1984.
On the other side of the ledger, Cribbs was obliged to pay Argovitz a $75,000 fee in 1983 (presumably out of the $200,000 he received from the Stallions), plus $25,000 in 1984 and 1985; and he begins paying back the loan in 1986, with a $30,000 payment that year and annual $80,000 payments each of the following four years.
Assume that Cribbs continues to play for Birmingham under his present contract. In addition to the $125,000 he got last year ($200,000, minus $75,000 to Argovitz), his cash income for 1984, 1985 and 1986 will average about $355,000 a year, a nice bundle but nothing extraordinary as athletes' salaries go these days. His guaranteed salary ends after the 1986 season. At that point the Stallions will still owe him $500,000 in bonus money and deferred guaranteed salary, but Cribbs will still owe them $320,000 on his interest-free loan. Net income to him: $180,000, spread out ($20,000 in 1987, $20,000 in 1988, $120,000 in 1989 and $20,000 in 1990).
If Cribbs is still a fine, capable player in 1987, he can go on to earn a lot more money. If he's not, about all he'll have left is piecrust.