Turns out, the Seahawks’ ill-fated Malik McDowell saga is not quite over.
The Seahawks have sued McDowell in federal court in Michigan stating that he has failed to repay $799,238 in bonus money that an arbitrator ordered him to, according to records initially revealed by The Detroit News and since obtained by The Seattle Times.
The suit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Michigan. McDowell is a native of Detroit (the suit lists him as a resident of Farmington Hills) who played college football at Michigan State.
McDowell was selected by the Seahawks with the 35th overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft, but he never played for the team due to injuries suffered in an ATV accident in July 2017. Coach Pete Carroll at one point referred to McDowell’s most significant injury as “a really bad concussion.”
The Seahawks finally waived McDowell, a defensive lineman, off the roster in March 2019 (he had remained on the roster on the Non-Football Injury list).
The suit is another step in Seattle’s attempts to reclaim McDowell’s signing bonus, which was $3.198 million, with the Seahawks having initially attempted to get all of it back before negotiations with McDowell and the NFL Players Association resulted in an agreement that McDowell would forfeit half — $1,599,238.
Following McDowell’s injury, the Seahawks withheld payment of $800,000 for the 2018 season. That resulted in McDowell needing to repay $799,238.
That total is half of the total of McDowell’s signing bonus of $3.198 million that was part of a four-year deal worth up to $6.9 million he received. NFL rookie contracts and bonus amounts are slotted based on where a player is selected in the draft. Teams can request that bonus money be returned by players for years they do not play. Along with getting the money back teams also get the money returned on the salary cap once the money is actually paid back.
The suit states that the Seahawks were due to pay McDowell’s bonus in four installments, with the bonus spread over the life of the contract for salary-cap purposes. He was paid $1,598,476 on or before June 2, 2017 and $800,000 on July 14, 2017. The suit alleges, and an arbitrator confirmed, that Seattle is due to be repaid the bonus money for the years McDowell was not available to play, which in essence are the bonus payments for the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
The move to recoup bonus money is rare but not unprecedented. 49ers linebacker Chris Borland returned three-quarters of his bonus money when he decided to retire after one season. And the New York Giants attempted to get $1 million of a bonus from receiver Plaxico Burress when he injured himself with a gunshot before an arbitrator ruled against the team.
But as several around the league noted Thursday, Seattle’s suit shows that the team is going to some rare lengths to make McDowell literally pay for having put himself in a situation that meant he never was able to play.
In fact, as the suit states, not only did the Seahawks initially seek forfeiture of all of McDowell’s signing bonus before then agreeing to seek forfeiture of only half of it after negotiations with McDowell and the NFL Players Association but they are also seeking interest that has accrued as well as legal costs incurred.
Seattle had already taken one other step to financially penalize McDowell following his injury, paying him just $5,000 per week in 2017, or $85,000 for the season. His base salary for that season before being put on the Non-Football Injury list was $465,000.
The arbitrator’s ruling was made on Feb. 27, 2019. The documents state that McDowell did not dispute the ruling nor “appeal the order” within the required 10 days.
McDowell’s waiving by Seattle occurred March 2, the team apparently at that point satisfied to move on following the ruling. His waiving came a few days after Seahawks general manager John Schneider told reporters at the NFL combine when asked about McDowell, “You know, I can’t talk about him. I really can’t.”
The possibility that the Seahawks might try to get back some of McDowell’s bonus money was considered a reason the team had been vague when discussing McDowell’s situation in the years since his accident — Carroll’s comment about his concussion was about the only concrete statement the team ever made about his condition.
Court records obtained by The Seattle Times show that details of McDowell’s injuries and the accident have been redacted. It’s thought that McDowell also suffered significant weight loss, among other byproducts of his injury.
The suit alleges that McDowell breached a standard portion of an NFL player’s contract stating that a player “will not … engage in any activity other than football which may involve a significant risk of personal injury.”
Seattle’s waiving of McDowell also came after numerous exams by the Seahawks determined that, in the team’s view, he would never physically be able to play football again.
However, McDowell’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, said at the league meetings in late March that McDowell had found an independent doctor who cleared him and that McDowell — who is still just 22 years old — is hoping to still play football.
“Unfortunately Malik got injured and it was a brain injury, a head injury,” Rosenhaus said to reporters. “And the Seahawks, they did a wonderful job of exhaustively checking to see if they could get him cleared to play. Ultimately, their doctors were not comfortable clearing him. He has since been cleared by independent doctors.”
McDowell had a visit with the Dallas Cowboys a short time after being waived by the Seahawks, and Rosenhaus expressed optimism that he would be signed. But McDowell did not sign with Dallas, and there have been no reports or indications that he has met with other teams.
During the league meetings in March in Phoenix, Carroll expressed surprise at Rosenhaus’ comments that McDowell had been cleared, and reacted with some mocking incredulousness when told that it was Rosenhaus who had made the comments, asking again who said it and then responding “Dr. Drew? Makes sense now.”
“Great for him, because I know he’d love to play in a game and all that,” Carroll continued. “They’ve got that figured out, and he’s gotten (cleared) and all that, but we had to deal with it the way we did. So it’s surprising.”
Carroll, when pressed on what he found surprising, said the fact that “it sounds like somebody cleared him, doctors cleared him to play.”
When another reporter asked a similar question later in the session, Carroll spoke a little more firmly to make clear the team’s belief that McDowell isn’t medically fit to play.
“The doctors wouldn’t let him play,” he said. ” … He had an accident that he was injured and they couldn’t clear him. So … ”
Seattle traded down from the 26th pick in the 2017 draft to No. 35 to take McDowell and used the four picks it assembled in those three trades to draft safeties Tedric Thompson, Delano Hill and Mike Tyson and running back Chris Carson.
McDowell is the highest-drafted player in Seahawks history to not play for the team.