The Broncos released tackle Ja'Wuan James after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon away from the practice facility. The team’s effort to circumvent a $10 million salary guaranteed for skill, injury, and salary cap will surely lead to litigation. The rest of the league’s players will be paying close attention to the James situation and others like it that may arise.
“You’re tasked with working out year-round,” NFL Players Association president and Browns center JC Tretter told Albert Breer of SI.com. “And guys have always felt teams have their back when they’re training, working out for the season. So players are watching this closely to see which teams aren’t going to have players’ backs. And doing this also disincentivizes guys working out. If you’re going to hold this over my head, and I don’t want to get hurt, well, then I’ll play myself into shape, and protect myself and money.”
Embedded in that quote from Tretter is a thinly-veiled threat. Teams that don’t have their players’ backs when they’re training for the season may have a harder time attracting free agents.
And while Tretter has a point, it’s one thing to cover a player who suffers an injury while working out beyond the confines of the offseason program, such as during the six weeks between the end of OTAs and the start of training camp. It’s quite another to cover a player who deliberately avoids working out at the team facility during the offseason program, especially when the player chooses to work out away from the workplace as part of an on-the-fly effort to secure concessions that could have been sought during formal collective bargaining.
“You really just want to feel like your team would have your back in that situation,” Tretter told Breer. “And then on top of that, you read this memo where it sounds like the league is basically pushing teams to throw injured guys under the bus.”
That’s precisely what the league did, and the league sent that message before James suffered his injury. James, given his social-media reaction to his Friday release, apparently didn’t realize the full extent of the risk he was taking by not working out at the team facility.
Some think James may pursue recovery of his $10 million salary not only from the Broncos but also from the NFLPA. The union possibly would then point a finger at the player’s NFLPA-certified agent, arguing (clumsily) that the agent should have told James not to do what the NFLPA told him to do.
For players who are watching the James case closely, they should also closely consider their own circumstances. Some players can suffer a serious injury at Planet Fitness and not lose a penny. Others will end up being treated like James. It’s critical for every player to assess where he lands in that analysis before deciding whether to continue to assume the full financial risk of an off-site injury.
“I think it’s coming down to control,” Tretter told Breer. “You’ll do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it, how we tell you to do it. They haven’t really heard players tell them no before. And now they have had the vast majority tell them no, and I’m sure it grinds some gears on their side. This is about getting to the status quo for them, even though I think we could all realize there’s a better way.”
Embedded in that quote is everything the players need to know about their current circumstances. This effort, which has resulted (per the union) in only 38 percent of players showing up for offseason workouts, constitutes the giving of a middle finger to the league. It therefore exposes the other 62 percent to the possibility of getting a middle finger in return.
Could James ultimately get some or all of his money from the league, the union, and/or his agent? Sure. But he’d get 100 percent of it without a fight if his injury had happened at work.