The NFL Players Association recommended that players stay away from offseason workouts. One player followed that recommendation. He’s currently out $10 million.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith addressed the Ja'Wuan James situation at Monday’s Sports Lawyers Association annual conference.
“It could be the subject of a grievance,” Smith said regarding the James situation, via Liz Mullen of Sports Business Journal. “It could be the subject of a settlement.”
Technically, it could be the subject of both, with James filing a grievance that ultimately gets settled.
James would argue that his contract for 2021 — guaranteed for skill, injury, and salary cap — can’t be avoided simply by cutting him for an injury suffered away from the Broncos facility. The Broncos would argue that his injury guarantee applies only to injuries suffered while working out at the team facility, that any other injury constitute a non-football injury, and that his contract can be terminated on that basis, with no responsibility for ongoing pay, despite the skill, injury, and cap guarantee.
There’s no middle ground, no baby-splitting alternative to the all-or-nothing proposition that the grievance could entail. The two sides could agree to partial payment in order to avoid setting bad precedent through an outcome to the formal grievance process. They also could agree to some nominal resolution, with for example James retaining his advance from 2020 on his 2021 salary when he chose to opt out due to the pandemic and/or a waiver of any claim that his $3 million signing-bonus allocation for 2021 could be pursued. (On the latter point, the Broncos likely surrendered any such argument by releasing James.)
The Broncos, in lieu of cutting James, could have kept him on the NFI list and elected not to pay him a weekly game check during the season. Ultimately, a grievance would have loomed on the question of whether a player injured while working out away from work for football training purposes counts as a football injury.
“Our job is at times to remind our players exactly what their rights are and what their choices are and reminding players that they don’t have to attend voluntary workouts is something as simple as reminding them about what’s in the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” Smith said. “Our players stay in shape, all year ’round and taking it to its logical conclusion that you should do everything to avoid NFI or non-covered injury would simply mean that you would want every player to show up at the facility from the time that the season ended to the time that the season started, and the only person that would be happy about that would be a coach.”
That logical conclusion may be a tad illogical, however. It’s one thing for a player to suffer an injury while working out away from work before the offseason program starts or after it ends. In that case, it would be difficult for a team to justify not covering a player’s salary. When, as in the case of Ja’Wuan James, the player deliberately chooses to leave the facility at the recommendation of the union and suffers an injury, it’s far easier for the team to say, “Too bad.”
As NFLPA president JC Tretter has said, players are watching this situation closely. It’s possible, in theory, that James will secure all or part of his salary as part of a broader compromise between the league and the union on the issue of offseason workouts. In reality, James would not have to worry about grievances or settlements if he’d simply continued to work out at the Broncos’ facility.