A Kinder, Gentler Holdout

By Rick Sarlat
Updated: August 15, 2005

Terrell OwensPITTSBURGH, PA.—As the T.O. soap opera in Philly devours headline after headline, a contract dispute of a much lighter variety between all-pro wide receiver Hines Ward and The Pittsburgh Steelers pushes on under the radar, virtually unnoticed.

Contract squabbles have become as commonplace a precursor to the season as the preseason itself, but Ward’s holdout may be the most valid of any this year. And he’s done it in much the same fashion he has in becoming one of the league’s premier receivers. Quietly.

“[The Pittsburgh Steelers] offered me a new contract sometime back in May and my agent and I countered that offer with our own,” Ward said on a recent ESPN talk show. “Then we didn’t hear back from them all summer until the day before training camp. And they came back with another offer that was way lower than what I believe is my fair market value.”

Ward, 29, has one year left on his existing contract that would pay him $1,668, 750. When he was a no-show for the start of training camp July 31, the Steelers front office announced that, in keeping with management’s long-standing policy of not negotiating with holdouts, contract negotiations with Ward had ceased.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that talks have now resumed between the Steelers and Ward’s agent, Eugene Parker.

Having simply out-performed his contract, Ward said, is the basis of his holdout.

“At the time I signed my contract I was a starter but I wasn’t a pro-bowl player,” he said. “I was just happy to be in the league and for my production on the field I believe it was fair compensation for me. Since then I’ve been to four straight pro bowls and amongst my peers I’ve put up great numbers. Yes, I’m happy that I made the pro bowl but being compensated with $1.6 million as compared to $9 and $10 million, that’s not fair.”

When juxtaposed with some of the league’s top earners at the wide receiver position, Ward’s numbers state, quite clearly, his case. Last season he caught 80 balls for 1,004 yards, finishing 17th in receptions and 24th in receiving yards, while earning a salary that ranked him among the league’s lowest paid at that position.

Conversely, The Indianapolis Colts’ Marvin Harrison, the highest paid receiver in the league, earns an annual salary of $10.6 million. Harrison nabbed 86 passes last season. Terell Owens, the loudest receiver in the league, earned $9.2 million last season, and caught 77 passes. The Seattle Seahawks Darrell Jackson earned $9 million in 2004 while catching 87 passes, and The New York Giant’s Amani Toomer, who caught the same number of passes as Ward last year, made $8.7 million.

“If you perform at a high level then I feel that a player has a right to ask for a raise,” he continued. “It’s just like any other professional business. You should be paid according to your performance.”

Considering the departure of standout receiver Plaxico Burress for the New York Giants after last season, the Steelers can ill-afford Ward’s holdout to extend into the regular season, action Ward has admitted he is willing to take.

Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a good friend of Ward’s, has reportedly said that Ward has turned the dispute into one of principle and is prepared to continue his holdout when the regular season opens Sept. 11.

“I think it has gotten to the point where he thinks that’s his only option, so to speak,” Bettis said. “That’s what he feels he probably has to do. It’s unfortunate but that’s the nature of the beast.”

According to reports, Ward would have to report to the Steelers by the 10th week of the regular season and be on the 53-man roster for the final six games to be credited with meeting the terms of his contract’s final year. He would then be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent and could sign with another team.

As the stalemate approaches its third week, the rest of the team continues forging ahead without Ward, some with optimism, some without. Receiver Antoine Randle El, who will likely get the lion’s share of touches in Ward’s absence, believes the Steelers can win without him.

“We can win games without him,” he told the Post-Gazette. “When I say without, I mean the crew we have. Would we win games with him? Of course. But we have some guys who can step up and make plays..”

Linebacker Joey Porter, who has since gone down with a knee injury, is far less confident.

“We can’t win without him. He’s worth whatever he’s asking for. It’s obvious we need him.”