Whenever players under contract choose not to show up for training camp, management-side mouthpieces routinely lament the fact that the player has chosen to violate the terms of his agreement. But there are two agreements that apply to every NFL player: The agreement between player and team, and the agreement between all players and the league.
That broader agreement gives each player the right to skip training camp, with the understanding that he can be punished with expensive fine (many of which often are never actually collected). The Collective Bargaining Agreement could have been written in stronger terms, allowing the team to pursue a court order forcing the player to return or giving the team the right to shut the player down for the entire year if he doesn’t show up. Instead, the CBA authorizes teams only to fine a player who doesn’t show up — which necessarily authorizes all players to not show up.
Once a player shows up, everything changes. If he later leaves, the team can send him a “five-day letter,” which (obvious given the label) tells the player that if he doesn’t return within five days, he could be placed on the reserve/left squad list. Placement on the reserve/left squad list ends the player’s season, prevents him from playing for anyone (even if traded), and tolls the contract that he already doesn’t like for an entire year.
That’s why players almost never show up and then walk out. The CBA shifts the power to the team once the player reports for camp.
Of course, there’s room for creativity, notwithstanding the team’s power to end the season of a player who reports and then bolts. For most if not all key players who hold out, the team doesn’t want to be without them for the full season. If Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, for example, reports with a pledge from the team to get his deal done and he later grows frustrated by a lack of progress and leaves, would the Cowboys shut him down for the whole season? Hell no.
Players also could, if they wanted, choose to leave, wait for the five-day letter, and then return on day four, perhaps repeatedly.
The other dynamic at play when it comes to holding out versus walking out is the distraction factor. It’s less of a disruption for a player to have never shown up than for a player to be there and then literally to disrupt the proceedings by getting up and leaving.
For those reasons, it makes far more sense for Elliott, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, Saints receiver Michael Thomas, and Washington tackle Trent Williams to not show up. Yes, it can get expensive. But they have the power to do it under the labor agreement, and the best way to pressure an NFL team into fixing a contract that has been outperformed is to withhold services by not showing up at all.