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Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Bengals gave Carson Palmer leverage

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

Nice couple of seasons Ohio is having. LeBron James told Cleveland to stick it, and now Carson Palmer is quoted as saying he will "never set foot in Paul Brown Stadium again," which has to thrill the good people of Cincinnati, some of whom have probably said the same thing more than once over the past few years.

But the common denominator isn't the great state of Ohio; the common denominator is money. James already was wealthy beyond even the modern athlete's measure (translation: sick wealthy), in addition to being talented in an elite way. He could choose his destination because it didn't really matter if he signed a maximum contract. He had virtually no financial constraints.

Palmer, too, is a money monster, and I say this with all due affection. More power to the quarterback for being absurdly paid -- Monopoly money is the currency of the NFL, anyway -- but there's something less than noble about any competitive athlete taking the position that, since he's rich, he can do what he wants.

True, sure. Noble? Not so fast.

Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer may have leverage, but is he right to use it?

Those weren't Palmer's exact words, only his sentiments. The closest he has come to relaying his thoughts was through a TV reporter in Cincinnati, WCPO's Dennis Janson. Janson said that Palmer had told a confidant, "I have $80 million in the bank. I don't have to play football for money. I'll play it for the love of the game, but that would have to be elsewhere. I'm prepared to live my life."

OK, nothing too terribly Charlie Sheen about that statement. On some levels, it's a simple declaration of frustration. There are plenty of people who study the Bengals for a living and have long since concluded that players with the means and motive would be well served to get themselves relocated to some other NFL destination.

But here's where I grow an old-school mullet: Carson Palmer is under contract. It's a deal he signed. He feels stuck in a lousy situation, which many of us probably can identify with, and he wants a way out, which lots of Americans have felt at one time or another -- but he signed a deal.

Basically, Palmer is using the Bengals' money against them. He's using the fact that Cincy has paid him these crazy sums over the years as ammunition to now force the franchise to trade him to another team. The Bengals made Palmer rich; Palmer now has enough money that he can walk; Palmer feels no compunction about using that leverage.

Some would tell you that that's just the nature of the beast in pro sports -- and those people would probably be right. Teams use their own leverage all the time, and they certainly use the fact of a contract agreement with a player to enforce all sorts of things they want to see done or avoided. Not only that, but a pro team will trade a player when the time or the deal is right. The player is property. Nature of the beast.

Palmer (and James, for that matter) represents the other side of that spectrum. He's the rare athlete who has reached a position of such financial security that he no longer feels compelled to play by the rules that were originally established. He might just quit. I don't believe that, but Palmer can say those words with just enough credibility to cause a stir. That's what $80 million in the bank will buy.

Bibby
Mike Bibby offers an alternate route for athletes who want to move to a competitive team.

Maybe the Bengals trade Palmer, although coach Marvin Lewis says he doesn't want to. But perhaps Cincy can get someone to offer fair value while also agreeing to take on the remaining four years and $50 million in base salary that Palmer is due. Maybe Palmer renegotiates with a new team to make it all work; after all, he's filthy rich by his own account. What's a few million bucks among friends when everybody's already swimming in cash?

Some of those scenarios are far-fetched, but they all beat the alternative, which is the idea of Palmer walking away from the sport while he's still got game left inside him. (Are you sure you hate the Bengals that much, Carson? Quit the game rather than continue to be an NFL starting quarterback? Really?) But that's big money gone wild. Jake Plummer had enough money to walk away. Barry Sanders could afford to orchestrate his own exit.

I'd rather see a rich athlete, if he were inclined to flex his financial muscle, do what Mike Bibby did. Bibby found himself, after the NBA trade deadline, dealt to a Washington Wizards team that isn't competing for the playoffs, and he negotiated a buyout in which the guard forfeited his entire 2011-12 salary of $6.2 million. Thus freed, Bibby was expected to sign with Miami and make a final NBA championship push before his career is done.

That's not chump change. It is a high price to pay for the individual right to pursue a ring. But it may be one of the more honest uses of a wealthy jock's money that we've seen in a long, long while.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in August 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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