Ja'Wuan James ordeal highlights the dissonance of NFL offseason programs, which aren't really 'voluntary' at all

When Tom Brady was still part of the New England Patriots, he gradually began opting out of the voluntary portion of the team's offseason program.

His decision was not well-received by all of the fan base, nor with Boston sports radio or some media members, who fretted that Brady's absence would harm the Patriots' offensive production. As soon as there was one hiccup during the season, Brady's absence would be sports radio fodder again.

As he revealed last year, Brady had to make that decision. His wife Gisele Bündchen, who shouldered so much of the load with their children during the season, was unhappy and needed him to contribute.

In other words, she wanted his offseason to actually include some "off."

Brady is lucky, however. While nearly all NFL teams' official offseason program is technically voluntary, many coaches and front offices don't see it that way. And if a guy whose job isn't as secure as Brady's was for nearly all of his tenure with New England isn't committed to it, he might find himself looking for a new team if he opts to skip them.

These are the types of arguments that some fans dismiss with a wave and a "they're millionaires, they're getting paid to play" type of comment.

Ja'Wuan James will likely miss out on $10 million because the NFL demands that players be in peak physical condition but won't foot the bill for the work it actually costs. (Photo by Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Ja'Wuan James will likely miss out on $10 million because the NFL demands that players be in peak physical condition but won't foot the bill for the work it actually costs. (Photo by Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Lots of NFL players don't earn a million dollars per season, but that take is wrong for an even bigger reason: Save for the players who have workout bonuses in their contracts, it's voluntary.

Voluntary. As in not required.

Voluntary. As in not paid.

Or in the words of soon-to-be-inducted Hall of Famer Edgerrin James, "I only went to college for 2 1/2 years but I think I know the meaning of the word 'voluntary.'"

NFL players get more vocal about skipping 'voluntary' workouts

How often do you want to work for free? Take the zeroes they earn in the fall out of it. Very few of us are going to work for eight weeks a year for free. Away from home, away from our partners, away from children if we have them.

It has been great to see NFL players band together in recent weeks and take a stand against voluntary workouts, though the recent injury to Ja'Wuan James — he suffered a ruptured Achilles while working out on his own — is surely testing some players' mettle. The Denver Broncos cut James just days after he was hurt as a way to avoid paying his $10 million salary for 2021, which was guaranteed for skill, injury and salary cap.

Players saw how the offseason could be handled last year, when it was all virtual due to COVID. It allowed them to be home, to work out on their own schedule (though some players cleverly hacked it), and to take part in meetings and teaching sessions with coaches online. Now they want that to be the way things are going forward.

J.C. Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center and president of the NFL Players Association, knows firsthand that the way drills are supposed to be run in the spring, according to the collective bargaining agreement, and the way drills are actually run at spring practice are two very different things. Ten minutes into his first organized team activity as a rookie, Tretter broke his leg in a fumble-recovery drill and missed the season.

“OTAs have been out of hand for a long time,” Tretter recently told The MMQB. “They’re full speed, full contact, non-padded practices, and guys are getting beat up in them.”

Data shows several players suffered concussions during 2019's OTA sessions, along with a host of other injuries. If a player suffers an injury in an unpaid, allegedly non-mandatory spring practice and therefore isn't ready for training camp and loses his roster spot, that's really not much different than a player who is injured while working out with his personal coach.

Why NFL players are closely watching Ja'Wuan James situation

The problem for the players is that they could have bargained for this. They agreed to a new CBA last year, a year before the one signed in 2011 was set to expire. They agreed to it right as COVID hit, but wanting fewer (or zero) in-person offseason sessions had been an issue for years.

And since they didn't collectively bargain it, and since players on several teams released statements saying they wouldn't be taking part in the voluntary workout program (encouraged, reportedly, by Brady), team owners are pushing back and playing hardball. Thus James' release.

(Shocking, right? Team owners have always been so receptive to doing right by players without the players having to negotiate for basic human decency.)

The reality is an injury like James', or the torn ACL suffered by fellow ex-Bronco DaeSean Hamilton, can happen at any time. Players are expected to be in peak physical condition, which requires them to be working out essentially every day, and there are chunks of weeks every year when they don't have training camp, the regular season or the offseason program.

“Only nine of the 29 weeks of the offseason are within the voluntary program," Tretter said. "So if we only prioritized staying off the non-football injury list, then we’d all only train nine weeks in the offseason. The league doesn’t want that, fans don’t want that, teams don’t want that. We know that we’re at risk off-site for non-football injury reasons. But it’s the same risk every year. And as for Ja’Wuan’s situation, players are watching that closely.

“You’re tasked with working out year-round. And guys have always felt teams have their back when they’re training, working out for the season ... 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 my money.”

The Broncos aren't the first team to go this route. They're just reinforcing the idea that if a player is hurt in their building, they'll compensate him because they have to. If a player is injured while working out on his own, well, he's really on his own.

It's interesting to see that the voluntary portion of the offseason program is where NFLPA membership seems to be banding together. It's not that the cause isn't noble, it's just that there are seemingly bigger issues, like the franchise tag or what percentage of revenue goes to players, that haven't attracted this much unity.

The next step should be for the union to ask the NFL to come to the table again to formally hammer out details of a new-look offseason program, one that is similar to last year's and doesn't lead to financial punishment for players who get injured working out on their own time. (And their own dime, by the way.)

Maybe it's something like putting a system in place to certify trainers, and if players are injured while working out with an NFLPA-certified trainer, then teams have to cover any guaranteed salary.

Is that ideal for players? No. But the NFL doesn't give up much.

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