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Ja'Wuan James' Injury Highlights Offseason Rift Between NFL, NFLPA

Last week, Broncos right tackle Ja'Wuan James suffered a torn Achilles while working out away from Denver’s team facility. Since the injury occurred outside the Broncos’ building -- and therefore outside the scope of his NFL contract -- Denver is able to place James on the non-football-related injury list (NFI) while he recovers. The move effectively opens up a roster spot for the Broncos, but it also means Denver is no longer obligated to pay James’ $10 million in guaranteed salary this season (assuming he misses the whole season).

Following the injury, the league sent out a memo informing players about the dangers of working out outside of team facilities. The memo concluded, “Clubs are encouraged to remind players of the significant injury-related protection provided if they choose to work out at the club facility and the risks they undertake in choosing to train in non-NFL locations.” The NFL Players Association leadership -- which continues to advise players to stay away from team training facilities due to ongoing high COVID infection rates -- criticized the league in response: “It was gutless to use a player’s serious injury as a scare tactic to get [the players] to come running back to these workouts.”

This presents a unique situation for players because the Players Association and the league just negotiated a new CBA that continues to relax rules on what is required of the players in the offseason. The truth is NFL teams employ some of the top trainers, doctors, therapists and nutritionists in the world. Because of that, and combined with the contractual protections of training in the building, I am not sure why the NFLPA is advising players to give all that up. And I am not sure what they are actually gaining by not reporting for offseason workouts.

Fewer injuries? Unlikely

The second part of it is that I believe the union is making incomplete conclusions based on the statistics last year that indicate there were less injuries without an offseason program. While it does indicate there were less injuries, it is incomplete information that is based on only one year. It is also a year in which there was no training camp or preseason. These are things that they are relying on that prove that fewer offseason workouts will definitely lead to fewer injuries. There are two things to counter that. One is that it has always been proven that players that hold out or miss training have a higher rate of injury than players that attended training. The second contradiction to this logic is what the NBA has just displayed. They are coming off an abbreviated offseason with a condensed schedule, and they are dealing with an unprecedented number of injuries to consequential players, in addition to the load management problem that continues to present itself in the NBA. At best, it is inconclusive to determine what offseason schedule will most help players stay healthy. This whole thing baffles me, and I am not sure of the stance the player’s union is taking.

If I was an agent, I would be advising my players to get in the building. Players obviously need to be in shape, and training at the facility allows them to be with some of the best strength and conditioning trainers in the world. More importantly, it also completely protects their money in the instance that they are seriously injured while training. One year of evidence about injuries is not nearly adequate enough to come to a scientific conclusion on what is best for players, and abandoning offseason programs because of this partial data is not commendable. We have already taken significant steps to reduce the offseason workload, and I do not believe we have enough information to continue to do so. I am all in favor of the league doing everything in its power to continue to mitigate the injury risk for players, but we have no concrete data to suggest that limiting offseason work will lead to this. Based on past study of holdouts, it is reasonable to suggest this could actually increase injuries around the league.

Relating this back to James, and the decision the Broncos might make… I had two notable players land on NFI over the course of my career with players that sustained injuries while outside of our building. From a legal perspective, we did not owe them anything until they were fully recovered, but in one instance, we decided to pay the player everything he was owed as if he had been training with us. In the other instance, based on the circumstances, we decided to pay the player half of what he was owed. Frankly, in both cases, the agent and the player were very appreciative because they understand the rules and the choice they made.

With James, this is a player that voluntarily gave up the protections he had on $21 million dollars of income over the next two seasons. While the most likely scenario is he misses this season and is back next season to earn $11 million, there is certainly a chance he is never the same player, and that might lead the team to cut ties with him. The bottom line is that he at least exposed himself to a loss that could total north of $20 million over the next two seasons. These are massive protections players are giving up to train at their own convenience.

If I was running the Broncos, I would have a really tough decision to make. I would not be worried about the perception of not paying the player because everyone knows what rights he has and what rights he lost when he decided to train on his own. I actually think it would be quite generous if they did pay him anything, but the circumstance would matter a lot. If he made this choice as a form of protest against the league or the CBA, I probably would not pay him for the season. If it turned out he was just trying to get in some extra work before minicamps and had good intentions, I would try to come up with some sort of reasonable compensation, that would most likely be a partial payment. In that case, it is hard not to be sympathetic for the player and try to come up with something fair. It is a really delicate situation right now in the NFL that is only exacerbated by the stance the NFLPA has taken.