Arguably one of the most drama-filled and disappointing chapters in Seattle Seahawks draft history still hasn’t ended. And it likely won’t until former Seahawks defensive end Malik McDowell either coughs up a considerable chunk of money to the franchise or legally proves that he doesn’t have the financial means to do so.
It became apparent this week the Seahawks intend to force McDowell down one of those roads as they’re suing their top 2017 draft pick in federal court to claw back $799,238 in signing bonus money that McDowell was previously ordered to repay by an arbitrator. The suit was first reported by the Detroit News and filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan, the closest jurisdiction to McDowell’s home address in Farmington Hills.
It’s a rare step for an NFL team to sue a former top draft choice to recoup signing bonus money. The development with McDowell underscores a monumentally disappointing spiral with the club following his selection with the 35th overall pick in 2017 draft. Once considered a potential top-10 pick in that draft class, McDowell suffered a slide on draft night after an inconsistent junior season at Michigan State, then never played a snap for Seattle after suffering serious injuries in an ATV accident prior to training camp nearly two years ago. He was released by the team in March.
But in timing that is germane to this week’s lawsuit, McDowell signed a four-year, $6.95 million contract with $3.19 million in bonus money several weeks before his accident. As part of that contract, the Seahawks were to pay McDowell that bonus in four increments. The team ultimately paid out three installments and withheld a fourth for nearly $800,000 following the revelation of his injury. After negotiations with the NFL Players Association and going through arbitration, Seattle agreed to forfeit half of the agreed-upon signing bonus, which still required McDowell to repay $799,238. The suit alleges McDowell never did despite attempts by the team to recoup the funds, leading to this week’s lawsuit.
The lawsuit reveals some previously unknown financial nuggets that suggest clear animus with McDowell’s current status. Among them:
Seattle initially attempted to regain everything it had paid him in the signing bonus installments. Meaning the franchise effectively tried to pay him almost nothing since he was drafted.
McDowell’s base salary as a rookie – which was slated to be $465,000 – was reduced to $5,000 per week for 17 weeks while he was on the non-football injury list. Essentially, Seattle took full advantage of the NFI avenue to reduce McDowell’s rookie base salary from $465,000 to $85,000.
The Seahawks are not only seeking repayment of the $799,238 that McDowell owes, they are asking for still-accumulating interest on that sum as well as repayment of their legal fees to recoup the money.
In terms of an aggressive stance with the finances of a former player, that’s a whopper of a pursuit. And it’s remarkable for teams that often fear public relations fallouts when it comes to seeking repayment of bonus monies from players whose careers end abruptly. But not only is Seattle looking to get money back, it is openly revealing in a lawsuit that it basically tried to reduce its payout to McDowell to as close to zero as possible.
The Seahawks felt compelled – and perhaps burned – to the point of taking that drastic approach, before a dialogue with the NFLPA struck a compromise that allowed McDowell to keep part of his bonus. But even that has gone sideways, with the lawsuit becoming the latest twist in what has been a bizarre and (at times) rumor-filled implosion with McDowell. One that began with an ATV accident that has never been fully detailed publicly by the team or player.
There was always a thicker subplot with McDowell’s draft selection, some of which developed at the NFL scouting combine, where some members of Seattle’s personnel department were rubbed the wrong way by him in a team interview. According to a source who spoke with Yahoo Sports about McDowell’s draft assessment, he apparently turned around some of the franchise’s concerns when he visited the team’s facility prior to the draft. It was on that trip when McDowell convinced general manager John Schneider and other team staffers that he was worth the gamble despite red flags that came up in his evaluation process.
McDowell wasn’t a “clean” pick from the start. Both before the draft and after, it was clear there were some dissenting opinions on his talent and character. But those opinions were eventually muted by McDowell’s high ceiling as an athletic talent as well as the reality that Seattle had rolled the dice on some players with concerns and ultimately reaped significant rewards.
The Seahawks never had the chance to play that out with McDowell following the ATV accident. Not only did he go through a significant weight and muscle loss after his accident, neurological risk assessments kept him from gaining clearance to play in Seattle again. Eventually, the bleakest concern – that McDowell could not play football without advanced risks – became the final assessment of Seattle’s medical advisers.
That led to his release in March, and a renewed attempt by McDowell’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to ignite interest from other NFL teams. “His doctors believe he’s ready to go,” Rosenhaus said in March. “We’ve got experts that are saying he will be cleared. … He has been cleared independently. But the Seahawks tried their best to work with him and unfortunately they didn’t feel he could continue to play.”
By the time Rosenhaus made those remarks, the Dallas Cowboys had brought McDowell in for a free-agent visit after his release in Seattle. To date, the Cowboys have passed on signing him. That visit and comments from Rosenhaus on McDowell’s health prompted some prickly responses from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll during the March owners’ meetings
“The doctors wouldn’t let him play,” Carroll said at the meetings. “He had an accident, he was injured and he couldn’t play.”
After being told of Rosenhaus’s assertion that independent doctors had cleared McDowell, Carroll delivered a sharp jab.
“Drew said that?” Carroll asked. “Dr. Drew. That makes sense now.”
Now we know that McDowell was nearing the end of a window to repay nearly $800,000 in bonus money to the Seahawks and still hadn’t done so. Not only was Rosenhaus publicly contradicting the Seahawks’ medical stance on McDowell, he was also shopping the defensive lineman to new teams at a time when McDowell still hadn’t settled his debts in Seattle.
That’s how we arrived at Wednesday, with the entire soap opera taking the latest and rarest of turns in the NFL – into federal court and with the Seahawks seeking to claw back seemingly every dime they are owed in this failed relationship.
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