Perhaps it wasn’t inevitable, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. Amidst the ongoing dispute between the NFL and the NFLPA regarding the offseason program and the ‘voluntary’ on-field work that players are asked to do, a veteran of prominence suffered an injury away from a team facility while the offseason program was in effect.
The situation surrounding Ja’Wuan James, formerly of the Denver Broncos, will serve as a case study going forward. Particularly for players, as a measure of how teams and the NFL handle player injuries that occur outside of the ‘jurisdiction’ of the teams, so to speak.
James is said to have been working with a private trainer last month when he suffered a season-ending injury while carrying out a workout program that was approved by the Broncos’ strength and conditioning staff. He was placed on the Non-Football Injury List and ultimately waived; in doing so, Denver freed itself of about $15 million in guaranteed money they owed James.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith recently said that the James case can either develop into a grievance case or a settlement — if not both — according to Pro Football Talk. Basically, James will argue that the club is still responsible while players are training for football anywhere, and the team will argue that it only applies in their building.
“You’re tasked with working out year-round”, NFLPA president J.C. Tretter commented after the James injury. “And guys have always felt teams have their back when they’re training, working out for the season. So players are watching this closely to see which teams aren’t going to have players’ backs. 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 money”.
Really, this may end up being a case that’s closely watched by everybody in the league. Including the coaches. Including the owners. Including the 31 other teams. Because it should be pointed out that this is a decision made by the Denver Broncos, and certainly not a decision they were required to reach.
If James’ case ends up resulting in a grievance or settlement that allows him to keep all or a substantial part of what he’d been owed, that would send a pretty clear message to the other 31 teams about what their responsibilities are toward players while conducting independent football training.
On the other hand, should a grievance find that the Broncos are not culpable for James’ previously-guaranteed money because the injury protection only applies to injuries sustained within team facilities, frankly, that could open an even bigger can of worms. Ultimately, this may not be resolved for a decade or more before the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.