OPINION: Ryan Clutterbuck and Michael Van Bussel discuss the negotiation tactics of NFL quarterback Lamar Jackson

This article written by Brock Assistant Professors of Sport Management Ryan Clutterbuck and Michael Van Bussel originally appeared in The Conversation.

Lamar Jackson has been named the National Football League’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career. Evidenced by his 3,678 passing yards, 821 rushing yards and 29 total touchdowns, and in leading the Baltimore Ravens to the AFC championship game, Jackson has more than earned the MVP designation.

However, just as impressive, but perhaps less well known, was Jackson’s remarkable off-the-field performance at the negotiating table in 2023.

Leading into the NFL’s 2023 season, Jackson was without a long-term contract extension and without representation. Season-ending ankle and knee injuries in each of the previous two seasons could have impacted teams’ willingness to meet Jackson’s demands for a long-term contract with significant guaranteed compensation.

Yet despite those challenges and concerns, Jackson was able to advocate and negotiate — for himself — the most lucrative contract in the history of the NFL: a five-year, US$260 million contract.

Objective criteria

There are several negotiation principles that impacted the Jackson negotiation. The first negotiation principle that helps explain how Jackson was able to achieve US$52 million per season, despite the issues and concerns discussed, is objective criteria.

In their book Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton argue that using objective criteria, such as fair market value and professional and moral standards, helps focus negotiating parties on shared principles like fairness while de-emphasizing winning at the expense of the other party.

In Jackson’s case, the clearest example of objective criteria is the comparable NFL quarterbacks’ contracts at the time of the negotiation, like those of Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Aaron Rodgers.

Since Jackson’s contemporaries were earning US$45 to $50 million per season (see above: fair market value), it suggests his eventual negotiated agreement with the Ravens would fall within the same ballpark — that is, if the Ravens agreed with Jackson’s assessment that his unique skills and on-field performance/potential were at, or near the top of, the NFL.

The lesson for those of us not in the NFL is the importance of discovering and articulating reasonable objective criteria in negotiations. For example, in a salary negotiation, we might point to colleagues who make more than we do for similar work and/or performance. While publicly available figures can be hard to come by, using external examples can also be effective.

However, it’s crucial to keep in mind that determining what qualifies as reasonable objective criteria is only half the battle. To effectively use objective criteria in negotiations, both sides must agree on it.

Building a golden bridge

A second negotiation principle illuminated by the Jackson negotiation is the importance of managing the relationship by “building a golden bridge.”

Particularly useful in heated negotiations, the golden bridge principle invites parties to set aside their often self-defeating ambition to win at all costs, and instead, imagine how they can make it as easy as possible for their negotiation counterpart to say yes.

In Jackson’s case, the relationship between him and the Ravens organization appeared compromised throughout the negotiation, in part because the Ravens’ side held certain asymmetric powers over Jackson, including the ability to trade the quarterback and/or unilaterally sign him to a one-year extension at US$32.4 million.

As a result, the relationship deteriorated to the point where Jackson announced on social media that he had requested a trade.

Remarkably, at the very same time, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was speaking to media at the NFL owners’ meeting, and, calm and composed, reiterated his endorsement of Jackson as the team’s quarterback for the future.

Later, in substantive negotiations, both sides embraced the golden bridge principles by incorporating both sides’ ideas and helping one another save face. This approach played a crucial role in repairing the strained relationship between Jackson and the Ravens organization.

Lessons for all of us

There are valuable lessons to be learned from Jackson’s negotiation. First, it’s crucial to recognize and appreciate tensions and frustrations that put our relationships at risk can and do occur in high-stakes negotiations.

Second, these tensions and frustrations can be overcome through careful and composed attention to the relationship between parties — using reasonable objective criteria and building the golden bridge.

In the case of Jackson and the Ravens, their use of objective criteria and the golden bridge principles ultimately resulted in a win-win — a five-year, US$260 million contract extension, of which US$185 million was guaranteed.

This extension allowed the Ravens to secure their franchise quarterback for the future and overcome the pressure to abandon their long-term financial interests and guarantee US$185 million instead of US$260 million.

Jackson’s US$52 million annual salary meant he had reasons to celebrate as well. Not only did he become the NFL’s highest paid player, but he also negotiated the highest per-year contract in the league’s history. Credit is due to Jackson and the Ravens for achieving this remarkable win-win.

The Conversation

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