The NFL and the NFL Players Association continue to be at odds regarding player participation in the voluntary portion of the offseason program. The potential stakes of the fight became clear earlier this week, when Broncos tackle Ja’Wuan James tore an Achilles tendon while working out away from the team’s facility — and when the NFL used the James injury as what the union called a “gutless . . . scare tactic” to get players to show up for workouts.
Players may have questions about the situation. If they want answers, they’ll get them from the union at 4:00 p.m. ET on Friday. That’s when an “open call” will be held “to update players on the offseason and OTAs.”
The open call follows Thursday’s email in which the union took sharp issue with the NFL’s memo to all teams in the wake of the James injury. And the union had good reason to do so, because it was obvious that the league seized on the James situation to give a middle finger to the union for telling players to stay away from offseason workouts.
Embedded in the email to all players is the hint of an argument that James possibly will suffer no financial consequences, given that he was following a training regimen recommended by the team despite working out away from the facility. One team source called this argument “garbage,” explaining that off-site injury simply protection doesn’t exist.
The lone exception came in 2020, when teams allowed players to do their workouts away from team facilities with full protection, because the pandemic closed all buildings to players until training camp. The league’s memo regarding James is rooted in the reality that players have protection only if they get injured while in the building.
There have been multiple incidents over the years of players claiming that they were injured away from work while workout out and teams refusing to pay the players — regardless of whether the players were engaging in training regimens provided by the team. The one potentially unresolved question, as the source noted, is whether a given team’s established custom and practice regarding players injured away from the facility becomes a precedent that can’t be ignored.
In theory, teams have full discretion to determine whether to pay a player who has suffered a non-football injury or illness. The Ravens, for example, paid Terrell Suggs after he popped an Achilles tendon while playing basketball. The Patriots paid Tedy Bruschi after a stroke and a heart procedure wiped out a season of football for him. The one argument that could save James and other players who get injured away from the facility flows from the notion that, if teams have covered injuries under similar circumstances in the past, they shouldn’t be permitted to change course now — especially if (as it appears) denial of coverage would be the result of retaliation against players who chose not to work out at the team facility, at the recommendation of the union.
There’s also a potential collusion argument floating around in this fact pattern, with the argument being that the league has put out word to the 32 independent businesses that belong to it should exercise their discretion in a way that denies players pay and other available benefits.
The memo from Wednesday could be circumstantial evidence of collusion, but the smoking gun when it comes to a Kaepernick-style collusion argument (i.e., the league told its member teams what to do) would be much harder to find. Also, it would be difficult to prove that teams actually followed this directive unless enough of them (it takes six or more to prove collusion) have players who suffer serious injuries away from the facility.
Regardless, there’s a cold war currently raging between the NFL and the NFLPA due to this question of offseason workouts. The next shots could be fired during Friday’s open call for union members.