The NFL Players’ Association isn’t requiring players to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but the union is citing the pandemic as a reason why it’s not safe to train at team facilities.
The NFLPA says less offseason work on the field is better for players’ bodies, but it agreed to add an extra 17th regular season game to every team’s schedule.
The union succeeded in convincing the NFL to delay on-field offseason workouts until May 17. So Monday’s start of offseason programs arrived without any standoffs between players and their clubs.
However, negotiations between the league and union are not over. Not all teams’ players handled Monday the same way. And there are plenty of questions about the gray areas involved in such a complicated situation.
The union’s leadership held an hour-long conference call on Monday to try and answer those questions. Here are some explanations for or notes on where this stands and where it might be going:
Players from 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams, including the Giants and Jets, have released union statements indicating a majority of them will not be participating in in-person, voluntary spring workouts. The NFL responded by altering Phase One of the workout program to four weeks long with virtual meetings, weight room work and no on-field drills.
So most players have stayed home for now.
The Giants, for example, only have players at their facility who are rehabilitating injuries for the time being. But approximately 20 Denver Broncos players showed up on Monday, per 9News, despite Denver’s players releasing a statement previously that they would not participate. Approximately 40 Houston Texans players showed, per the Houston Chronicle. And for Dallas Cowboys players it was “business as usual” on Monday, according to SI.com. So the lack of uniformity means some teams are getting a head start as a group. As the Daily News reported last week, there are Giants players who still plan to report to the start of Phase 2 in mid-May, though they’re away for now.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the union’s main message to players is that “it’s safer not to go,” but every player can decide for himself. “This is not a boycott. This is not a strike. This is not a labor action,” Smith said.
“Players have the right to make their own decisions about what to do with respect to offseason training activities. We made it clear that if players have money on the line — whether it’s in the form of bonuses that they will get by going to OTAs or in the form of de-escalators — we are never gonna stand in the way of a player making a financial decision about what he could do and should do.” Smith said 230 out of 4,500 players have workout bonuses.
He said encouraging those players to go get their money doesn’t mean their safety is any less a priority because those reduced numbers of bodies in the teams’ facilities would change the theoretical risk, creating a “vastly different environment upon which to measure safety.” Union president JC Tretter, the Cleveland Browns’ center, lamented that owners are requiring players to report in-person to earn workout bonuses instead of continuing last year’s leniency given the ongoing pandemic. Smith also pointed a finger at agents for structuring a players’ contract that ties his earnings to his physical presence.
Players will be receiving their daily per diem payments for their virtual participation in Phase One; the workout bonuses are another matter. The Green Bay Packers reportedly offered their players a compromise, saying the team would give credit for workout bonuses for virtual participation in Phase One as long as they showed up for Phase Two, per ProFootballTalk. But Tretter said it will be a team by team decision on whether to give players credit for workout bonuses if they don’t show in person.
The union is setting a good example on COVID-19 vaccines. Tretter said he is one shot into his vaccination. Giants edge Oshane Ximines posted proof of his first Pfizer shot on Instagram. Smith said definitively: “I think people should get it.” And Dr. Thom Mayer, the NFLPA’s medical director, said he has encouraged players to get the vaccine when they’ve asked him. But the union is stopping at education and encouragement.
Smith said it’s important to try to lead people to their conclusion “in a non-demanding, non-threatening, information-based way.” He also pointed out that “the league has made it clear that they are not gonna mandate it.”
Mayer, meanwhile, stressed that while the union is encouraging players to be vaccinated, he does not approve of “the concept of vaccine-shaming, of implying that someone is less than intelligent or less than responsible.” He called that logic “anti-scientific.” An interesting neutral stance when the threat of the virus simultaneously is being cited as a reason players can’t report in person.
The union says there was a 23% reduction in “missed time injuries” during the 2020 season following the NFL’s first virtual offseason last year. That is one major reason why the players are now pushing for virtual offseasons to be permanent. “The quickest way off a team is to get hurt in the middle of the offseason,” Tretter said. “And when you see how many injuries we avoided by not being there, it may be actually one of the most dangerous places to be in the offseason, as a player — on those practice fields for really unnecessary workouts and practices that get guys hurt.”
What doesn’t quite add up, though, is that the NFLPA agreed to add an extra 17th regular season game to each team’s schedule, which obviously puts a ton more wear and tear on players’ bodies. So why protect bodies in the offseason but add the game to the regular season? Tretter said it’s more complicated than the question presumes.
“The CBA is a range of a lot of issues,” he said. “The 17th game also came with a bunch of health and safety aspects to cut practice time in camp, to cut time on the field, to cut time at the facility. So yeah there’s an addition of a game … but there are also plenty of rollbacks … that the majority of our guys felt equaled out that wear and tear. And now we have new data. I don’t know if anybody knew for sure what would happen when you don’t have an offseason until you don’t have one.
“After that CBA was agreed to, a pandemic breaks out and we have a virtual offseason, and we’ve been waiting on that injury data all year, because we were really interested to see what would happen. And what it showed was that guys were much healthier. And we knew that as players there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that I feel way better, I feel healthier, I feel mentally and physically fresher, but you don’t rely on anecdotal evidence, you rely on the actual data. And then you do the math and when you see a 23% reduction in missed time injuries, you say wow, that’s a lot of injuries, a lot of wear and tear avoided that shortens careers.”
Smith said the union always tells players not to work out on their own in a group because they aren’t covered for injury outside of their facilities. Last summer, the union began discouraging those workouts due to COVID-19, as well, and Tom Brady and some Buccaneers players organized their own workouts anyway. Smith publicly came out against the Bucs players’ actions and recalled on Monday: “I won’t mention the name of the quarterback in Tampa that wears No. 12 who picked up the phone and said that I top-roped him during a press conference. We said those weren’t good ideas.” Brady often went maskless through the NFL’s 2020 season as protocols ramped up, so it appeared Smith was the rare party standing up to Brady.
The union’s push for a fully virtual offseason means a fight is likely coming over the owners’ insistence upon the resumption of one mandatory minicamp per team, traditionally in mid-June. Smith said the focus is on the voluntary OTAs — for now. “We believe that the science and everything we’ve talked about would strongly demonstrate that we would be better off not having even the mandatory minicamp,” Smith said. “If there was going to be a change to the mandatory minicamps, that would have to be collectively bargained.”