The NFL and the National Football League Players Association worked well together last year. After striking a new, 11-year labor deal in March, management and labor basically re-wrote the agreement on the fly in order to allow the 2020 season to proceed, despite the pandemic.
Now, the relationship has skidded off the rails, sort of. The two sides are squabbling over the contours of the 2021 offseason program, with the union inclined to finally take the term “voluntary” literally.
The rank and file are caught in the middle, both as to the current employees of the league’s 32 teams and, within the next couple of weeks, the incoming crop of draft picks and undrafted free agents who currently have no voice in the process. Union leadership has recommended that players stay away from the voluntary offseason program. A growing number of teams have issued statements indicating that they’ll accept that recommendation. Plenty of teams have not yet done so.
Even if they all do (and they all surely won’t), it’s binding on none of the individual players, each of whom will have to make the decision whether to: (1) work out at the team’s facility, and be protected against injury; (2) work out on their own, and not be protected against injury; or (3) not work out at all, and be woefully unprepared to compete in training camp. Inevitably, many will show up — especially since the process of on-field workouts for each franchise will commence with a rookie minicamp, consisting of rookies who’ll feel compelled to show up and tryout players who definitely won’t boycott their chance to get a spot on the 90-man offseason roster.
So why is this happening? Ostensibly, it’s because of the pandemic. Other reasons include a broader goal of ending the offseason program entirely, as well as acting out in the wake of the NFL’s ongoing dominance of the relationship.
To the extent that the pandemic is a concern, it’s hard to understand why. For starters, players can easily address COVID concerns by getting vaccinated. Or, if they decide not to receive the shot(s), they can show up pursuant to the same protocols that the league and union jointly negotiated last July.
The league has offered to relax those protocols for players who choose to be vaccinated. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the NFLPA still hasn’t responded to the league’s March 26 proposal on that very topic.
Even without reduced standards for vaccinated players, it’s unclear why the union suddenly resists the protocols to which they agreed last year. Does union leadership believe players won’t work out somewhere? If they’re going to work out anywhere, they’re better off working out at the team facility.
Hopefully, union leadership is explaining this angle to the players who are being asked to stay away. Work out on your own at you own financial peril is the message the NFLPA should be communicating to those who agree to boycott showing up at work until they are required to do so.
The best approach would be for the two sides to come together and resolve the issue. It’s a small piece of a much larger puzzle. As one former coach explained it on Thursday night, it’s a waste of time for the two sides to fight over the issue. The offseason program makes training camp easier for everyone, since there’s less time spent teaching in July/August and more time working on preparations for Week One and beyond.
“I’ll never understand why anyone thinks doing less will get you more,” the coach observed.
The reality is that players won’t do less, they’ll just do it somewhere else. Somewhere without COVID protocols. Somewhere without the free insurance policy that covers injuries occurring on company property.
So they need to work it out. If all else fails, the union needs to find an off ramp. Broncos rep Brandon McManus realized that on Wednesday, after the league’s offseason procedures were published to the 32 teams. It would be very easy for all union leaders to now say, “Well, now we know what they’re proposing. That works.”
It seems to be much better for everyone than what ultimately will become a non-issue. During the week of May 17, draft picks, undrafted free agents, and tryout players will flood team facilities and practice for multiple days. When the next week comes, will most players really stay away?
More importantly, will those who stay away opt to stay home and do push-ups, Peloton, and P90X, or will they find a gym and/or a football field that will best prepare them to show up at training camp ready to compete for roster spots and starting jobs?
The sooner that everyone involved realizes how this movie is destined to end, the sooner they can pull the plug on the projector. That, frankly, will be in the best interests of all players — with the exception of those veterans who fear that a full offseason program will make it easier for younger, cheaper players to get enough reps and instruction to eventually become one of the members of the 53-man roster, at the expense of the older and more expensive players.