The NFL plans to proceed with the unofficial launch free agency at noon ET on Monday. If it happens, it will be one of the biggest mistakes the NFL ever has made.
It’s no longer about the bad optics of big contracts being handed out in deeply troubled times, although the optics remain less than optimal. It’s about the NFL doing its part to send a clear message that, at least for now, the world has fundamentally and dramatically changed. The new normal is that nothing is normal, and any effort to make things seem normal necessarily will be abnormal.
The NFL realizes that it’s a mistake to proceed; that’s why the NFL is working so hard to mobilize its friends and employees in the media to place blame on the union. When history chastises the NFL in the same way that it still does for playing games two days after the assassination of JFK, the NFL wants to be able to credibly say, “Don’t blame us, blame them.”
Baloney. The NFL still runs the sport. If the NFL wants to slam the brakes on free agency, it can. And if the NFL Players Association wants to file a charge with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the league of unfair labor practices because it implemented without bargaining a delay in free agency, so be it.
Maybe the truth is that the NFL wants to proceed with free agency, but that it also wants to deflect the P.R. fallout to someone else. If so, the union needs to make it clear that the league is pushing to go forward as aggressively as the players are.
If the NFL truly wants to press pause, there’s still hope that the NFL Players Association can be persuaded to see the light before the market opens at noon ET. As we reported last night, the NFL and NFL Players Association will be talking today about the situation. Tom Pelissero of NFL Media adds to this that the conversation will include “guidelines for how to conduct free agency — travel, medicals, etc. — amidst our national emergency.”
Maybe, just maybe, it will become obvious during these conversations that it will be impossible to properly handle the logistics and finalize the deals before the inevitable (and, yes, it’s inevitable) national quarantine is imposed by the President. When that happens, millions in tentative deals will plunge into limbo, with both team and player having days, weeks, or months to back out. Then will come the physicals. If the player fails the physical, he’ll be back on the market months after believing that his bank accounts will be flush with life-changing money.
The smart move continues to be pressing pause, for however long it takes. In 2011, the league delayed free agency until August, due to the lockout. Now, with much more at stake than winning a labor negotiation, the NFL needs to show real leadership amid this crisis and do the right thing for the game, the players, and the nation.
And, yes, this message ultimately is directed at one person: The man whose autograph appears on every NFL football.