The NFL Players Association wants the rank and file to choose to not show up for offseason workouts. The NFL apparently wants to see them try.
The league, we’re told, sees this as a potential win, a reminder that collective action for this specific unionized work force doesn’t work. The last time the NFLPA attempted to stand together against the league came in 1987, when the players went on strike, when the league hired replacements, when the regular players eventually began to cross the picket line, and when the work stoppage collapsed.
This time around, the replacement players already will be on the payroll. If/when veterans stay away, younger players will show up to take advantage of the extra opportunities to develop and to persuade coaches that they can be trusted with roster spots and playing time come September. Agents will advise clients not likely to win one of the 53 regular-season jobs to show up for the offseason program. Teams will sign undrafted free agents with a not-so-subtle understanding that they’ll show up for offseason workouts. And show up they will.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, players already have asked teams if they will be permitted to participate in the offseason program even if their teammates boycott. There will be, as the source explained it, hundreds of players who will choose to attend and to participate.
“There will be no unity and it is going to backfire horribly,” the source predicted.
The union could try to use this as a rallying cry to encourage unity. Before there’s a rallying cry, however, there has to be something around which to rally. What exactly is the NFLPA rallying around?
Ostensibly, the boycott flows from concerns about the pandemic. Unless players plan to work out nowhere between now and training camp, however, they’ll be working out somewhere. NFL teams showed last year during the season that, for the most part, they can provide a workplace with minimal COVID-19 outbreaks. Likewise, injuries that happen at the team facilities are covered; players who get hurt at Planet Fitness or on a high-school practice field can placed on the non-football injury list and not paid.
Also, to the extent that players are concerned about COVID-19, there’s a big difference between last year and this year, in the form of a needle that contain a vaccine — and that may or may not contain an army of Bill Gates nanobots. (My own dose of nanobots has told me to type that it does not.)
The problem is that there are too many varying reasons for the attempted boycott. Some, like NFLPA president JC Tretter, want no offseason program of any kind in any year, regardless of the pandemic. Others want to use the threat of a boycott as leverage for a concession from the league. Still others, per a source with knowledge of the thinking, are simply pissed off about the perception that the league always gets whatever it wants.
That happens because the owners will take collective action even if it means missing games that count and losing money, while the players won’t. When it comes to the 2020 labor deal, which among other things gave the league the ability to add a 17th regular-season game, the league was getting that extra weekend of action, one way or the other. The players could have either done the best deal that they could last March (which they did) or they could have taken a lockout this year and eventually accepted a CBA based on 17 game just before the window closes on game checks (which based on 2011 they would have done).
Frankly, the union does much better than it should at the bargaining table, given that the rank and file won’t utilize a nuclear button on which the league perpetually rests its thumb. The owners could drive a much harder bargain than they do, because the players always will chose playing and getting paid to play over giving up a portion of a career that already is very short.
The problem with the plan to launch a mass boycott of offseason workouts is that failure will underscore the imbalance of power between management and labor, possibly emboldening ownership to take even harder line in the future.
So here’s the real message to NFLPA player leadership: Unless you’re convinced this is going to work, it’s far better to not even try to do it.