Nothing optional about 'voluntary' workouts
By Michael Silver, Yahoo Sports
May 23, 2008
This was the tiring existence I enjoyed in the days and nights leading up to Memorial Day of 2001: Trailing James, then a 22-year-old star halfback for the Indianapolis Colts, as he went from club to party to yacht while reporting a feature story for Sports Illustrated.
It wasn't until I returned home to California that I discovered we'd actually been making news. While hosting me in Miami, James had neglected to attend a Colts minicamp being held in Indy that weekend. Though the minicamp wasn't mandatory, his absence had provoked critical public comments from quarterback Peyton Manning and coach Jim Mora, and now I had to call James to get his response.
"Hell, I only went to college for 2½ years," James said. "But I think I know the meaning of the word voluntary."
James is a funny dude, but seven years later, the rebuke faced by players who exercise their right not to attend such workouts is no laughing matter. In fact, the mere depiction of minicamps, OTAs (organized team activities) and passing camps as "voluntary" is the biggest joke of all.
• In Cincinnati, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis essentially confirmed that last Monday's release of Odell Thurman was related to the troubled linebacker's failure to attend the team's first official offseason workout, a move which would violate the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and NFL Players' Association. Thurman cited the death of his grandmother as an excuse for his absence, but Lewis told reporters last Wednesday, "His grandmother's been buried for quite awhile now … We've been patient enough with Odell, and he's no longer here." It's exceedingly difficult for me to adopt the position of defending Thurman, a former second-round draft choice who has habitually screwed up like few other players of his generation. That said, he ought to be able to file a grievance against the Bengals – and win – if he was indeed released for skipping voluntary activities.
• In Miami, Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations, reportedly was so angry at star defensive end Jason Taylor for appearing on "Dancing With The Stars" – rather than joining his teammates in OTAs – that last month he refused to speak to the '06 NFL defensive player of the year when Taylor paid a quick visit to the team's training facility. The situation has since worsened, as Miami coach Tony Sparano told reporters Wednesday that Taylor plans to skip all team activities (voluntary or otherwise) between now and the start of the regular season. But Parcells' snub obviously didn't help facilitate a potentially less contentious resolution.
• In Arizona, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt took a milder approach last Tuesday, saying he was "disappointed" that wideout Anquan Boldin and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett had chosen not to report to the team's voluntary practice sessions. Both players reportedly are unhappy with their contracts, seemingly putting them in a group that includes Bills tackle Jason Peters, Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and Saints defensive end Will Smith – other players who've caused a stir recently by staying away from voluntary workouts.
This is what passes for NFL news in late spring, as fans join coaches in fretting over various players' failure to attend practices that, by definition, are supposed to be relaxed in nature. For example, there are severe restrictions on the amount of contact that is allowed, something that might be news to the two Browns players – cornerback Daven Holly (severe left knee injury) and wideout Braylon Edwards (hip pointer) – who got hurt on a single play last Tuesday.
Just as the NFLPA seldom protests the undue contact, the union rarely utters a peep about the players who lose their standing – or, in some cases, their jobs – for skipping voluntary workouts. The union's attitude seems to be this: As long as the head coach is the one making lineup (and, in some cases, roster) decisions, lack of performance can always be cited when a player falls out of favor. Even when the NFLPA might suspect that the decision to demote or cut a player is based on his absence from voluntary offseason workouts, proving it is difficult, and in most cases the union doesn't even bother.
I realize that for most of you, it's hard to have much sympathy for the players. They command relatively large salaries while most of their mandatory workload is concentrated into six months. For that reason, even those fans who don't have a knee-jerk pro-management bent aren't especially inclined to take up their cause.
Yeah, I know what many of you are thinking: If someone paid me that kind of money for playing a game, I'd do whatever the boss wanted me to.
But would you really? Close your eyes and pretend you have a great job with a fat salary, and now imagine that the boss asks you to come in for a 14-day voluntary training workshop because he or she feels it will help the company. The additional pay will be minimal, the boss explains, but just think of the satisfaction you'll derive from making the company better.
Pretend, for argument's sake, that your performance ratings have been consistently high and that you know precisely how to prepare for the next big project you and your co-workers will be assigned to tackle. But this is your down time, and you were hoping to hit the beach or the golf course or take the kids to soccer practice – or simply lay around and do nothing at all.
At 6:30 the next morning, the alarm clock rings. Still up for that voluntary workshop?
Look, I'm not saying offseason training sessions don't have value. Over the years, enough coaches and players have cited them as a source of team's success, be it because of the actual work that occurred or the bonding that went along with it, that I assume they can be helpful.
For that reason, my position is not that these workouts should be abolished. Instead, I'd call them what they really are: Mandatory, full-contact, offseason practice sessions. And then I'd have the league and the NFLPA sit down at the bargaining table and agree on a set number of practices – and a pay scale in line with the importance teams place on them.
Will this happen in time to prevent the players who skip next spring's OTAs from getting the Thurman/Taylor/James treatment? It's not likely. But given that the owners just unanimously voted to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement following the 2010 season, this is one of many issues that should be resolved as a new deal is negotiated.
In the meantime, one of my editors has volunteered to give me next week off. I haven't decided whether to take him up on it, but I've got a pretty good idea which way I'm leaning.
Take it to the ATM
Jason Taylor will, in fact, show up to training camp – it just won't be the Dolphins' training camp … The 2012 Super Bowl will be really great for anyone who scores a hotel room in downtown Indianapolis – and a logistical nightmare for those who don't … When it comes down to it, the owners of the Rams will care more about avoiding an inheritance tax of more than $200 million than they will about the certainty of keeping the team in St. Louis.
Lies, lies, lies
1. In order to appeal to prime-time viewers on the East Coast, next year's Champions League final in Rome will begin at 2 a.m. local time.
2. There's nothing I appreciate more than hearing the coach of a youth sports team denigrate another team on which one of my kids plays.
3. Reasoning that a certain Utah high school student could "come up with more hits than his namesake Adam," Redskins executive vice president Vinny Cerrato offered a fat free-agent deal to David Archuleta.
Oxygen-deprived thought from above
For those of you who believe I need a dose of humility, consider that I've got virtually no chance of earning writer's bragging rights in my own family when my sister-in-law, Andrea Todd, brings the heat in stories like this one (.pdf) that appeared in the May issue of Elle.
Let's do some Don Julio Silver shots for …
The Cal women's tennis team, which has come a long, long way since I used to cover it for the Daily Californian back in the mid-80s. The Bears' dramatic run through the '08 NCAA tournament, which included a quarterfinal upset of No. 1 Northwestern, ended with Cal's first-ever appearance in the championship match last Tuesday. The Bears fell in the finals to Pac-10 rival UCLA, but the 4-0 score was deceptive: All but one of the matches was tight, and it took the Bruins more than four hours to secure the victory. No one exemplified the Bears' fighting spirit more than senior Stephanie Kusano, who was down 6-2, 5-2 to UCLA's Elizabeth Lumpkin at No. 5 singles before rallying to win five consecutive games, punctuating winners with defiant screams of "Come on!" The lime slices and salt shaker are out for Kusano and fellow seniors Susie Babos and Cristina Visico – and for first-year coach Amanda Augustus, who is on her way to greatness. Toasts are also in order for Augustus's esteemed predecessor, longtime coach Jan Brogan, and for the late, great Mary Margaret Torres, whom Kusano seemed to be channeling. Finally, I'll be swigging margarita mix, sans alcohol, for my amazing niece, Oak Ridge High School sophomore outfielder Gabby Goyette, whose blazing speed (OK, she's on my wife's side of the family) and well-over-.500 batting average helped the Trojans capture the Sac-Joaquin Section championship Thursday.
Yahoo search words of the week
Hitler Burning Man (warning: explicit language)
Cal Softball Item of the Week
For those of you who used to read my columns back in the SI.com days, this is a flashback to the first subcategory of them all – brought on by the Bears' macho performance in the sweltering Fresno sunshine last weekend. That's right … Cal softball is back! Seeded third in their regional, coach Diane Ninemire's gritty Golden Bears evoked memories of their last visit to Bulldog Diamond in eliminating 16th-ranked Fresno State, as senior catcher Julie Meyer's ninth-inning single secured a 7-6 victory last Sunday afternoon. Closing my eyes while "watching" via GameTracker, I could almost hear my fellow Cal softball junkie, Professor Karen Tongson, screaming "OH MEYER!" and feel a hearty long-distance high-five from Papa John Thorson. It'll be time for all of us to break out the Tecates Friday when Cal opens its best-of-three Super Regional against No. 1 Florida in Gainesville (ESPNU), with Games 2 and 3 (if necessary) set for Saturday (ESPN). It's a daunting matchup for the Bears, but don't put anything past Ninemire's teams in the postseason: In the past decade, Cal has competed in 10 regionals – all of them on the road – and won nine of them. With sophomore pitcher Marissa Drewrey's emergence as an ace and the leadership of seniors Meyer, Erika Racklin and Katie Vickers, the Bears won't go down meekly. And don't even get me started on the recruiting classes Ninemire has lined up for the next several years.
Lyric-altered song dedication of the week
The NFL's owners voted 32-0 this week to opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement, meaning 2010 looms as an uncapped year and a potential work stoppage could come the following spring. Here's how we imagine the Goodell 32 belting out their disdain for the existing CBA behind closed doors, to the tune of the Jackson 5's "ABC":
Dan Rooney: "A buh-buh buh buh-buh
Tom Benson: Come on, let me squeeze you just a little bit
Denise DeBartolo York: CBA is over like Favre in Green Bay
Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, May 23, 2008 8:00 pm, EDT