Luis Suarez and the dangers of the escape clause

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

I'm not a contract lawyer, but I've met a few. And I'm pretty sure a big part of their job is to ensure that agreements are as clearly written, unambiguous and precise as possible. Why else do they charge four figures an hour for huddling together endlessly arguing over every word and nuance?

Which is why this Suarez tale is so maddening.

Suarez believes a clause in the contract he signed last summer allows him to join any club who bids more than $61.3 million (which is a nice, round £40 million in pounds).

Liverpool believe that very same clause stipulates that, if the £40 million threshold is reached, they merely need to "inform" him that somebody has bid for him.

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Now, I haven’t seen the contract. And even if I did, odds are it’s written in the kind of indecipherable legalese that would make it hard to understand. But I know for a fact that Liverpool have lawyers specializing in contracts. And so too does Suarez. And for that reason, I fail to understand how they could come to such radically different conclusions.

Go ahead. Go through the possibilities. One side could be lying.

"Tee-hee. Let's pretend the clause says you can leave, Luis! Yeah, that's a good idea! It’s not as if Liverpool are actually going to go back and read the contract, is it?"

(In the interest of fairness, the reverse: "I know he's triggered his release clause. But don’t worry, we’ll just argue that, when the clause is triggered, all we need to do is tell him. I'm sure he'll buy that, aren't you?")

Or one side could have incompetent lawyers working for them who, despite years of law school, can’t read a freaking contract.

Far-fetched? Let’s hope so.

Which leaves another possibility -- the most likely one, in fact. The clause is there, but it’s written in a convoluted, ambiguous way designed to leave both sides thinking it works in their favor.

Close your eyes and you can almost see both lawyers emerging from the contract signing with a fiendish glint in their eye thinking the exact same thing in their lawyerly brains. "It's all legal mumbo-jumbo, but I fine-tuned it to the point that it’s all in our favor, while those poor fools on the other side think the opposite."

John Powell/Getty ImagesLuis Suarez believes a clause in the contract allows him to join any club who bids more than $61.3 million.

If that’s the case, and this matter really goes to arbitration -- where another set of lawyers can sift through the words and try to make sense of things -- the Premier League have a golden opportunity to make a stand for clearly written player contracts of the kind that don't waste everyone’s time and serve a purpose other than ratcheting up the billable hours.

Contracts are already complicated enough with their bonus structures and image rights. Is it really necessary to come up with this kind of convoluted crap?

Does any player in the world actually need a clause in his contract whereby if a certain amount is bid for him then he must be informed? What’s the point?

In the real world, no club is going to make a bid for a player without talking to his agent first. They need to find out the terms of his contract, the length of the deal, how much he earns, etc. While they’re getting all this information freely from his agent, they may also want to tell him something like “Yep, we’ll be bidding X million on Tuesday.”

As for release clauses, yes, there is a place for them in the modern game. It’s a logical bargaining chip when a player whose value may rise steeply in the future negotiates a contract extension. Put a reasonable release clause in there -- like Borussia Dortmund did with Mario Goetze -- and you’ll likely get the player to sign for less money than he would otherwise demand. Put a huge clause in there and you’ll most likely have to pay a little more in wages, but you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that anyone who wants your guy will have to pay through the nose. Both scenarios can backfire badly for either side (in Goetze’s case, Dortmund got burned), but hey, that’s business. Nobody is holding a gun to your head.

But please, if you’re going to have a release clause, KEEP IT SIMPLE. And make sure the other side understands what they’ve just signed.

Otherwise you end up with what we’re seeing today -- a needless, tiresome and ugly dispute between a club and their star player.


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