Ja’Wuan James would probably rather be remembered for being a star left tackle or for his highlight-reel pancake blocks against opposing defenders. Instead, he’s become known for one of the worst days of his career, which exemplifies the strife between NFLPA and the NFL regarding the offseason calendar.
James, a 2014 first-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins, was dropped by the Denver Broncos less than two weeks after he tore his Achilles tendon during a voluntary workout at an off-site facility in May 2021. Since he wasn’t at the team facility when the incident occurred, the Broncos were able to void his $10 million guaranteed base salary in 2021.
James later filed a grievance against the team, seeking $15 million in lost wages, and last week, he reached a settlement of $1.09 million with the Broncos. It’s a noticeable drop from what he was aiming for in his grievance, which included $5 million that would have been due this year, but the result isn’t terribly surprising, since the language in the relevant section of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement favors the Broncos and the 31 other teams.
Working out away from the team facility essentially cost James $9 million of his salary last year. The veteran is the latest player to run up against the current CBA, which doesn’t lend strong protection for players encountering non-football injury designations.
The NFL and NFLPA decided to significantly change the structure of the offseason training schedule during the pandemic in 2020. This resulted in no spring mini-camp or OTAs, with limited practice time to keep injuries to a minimum. The NFLPA has pushed to make previously temporary changes to the calendar permanent, with president JC Tretter saying there’s “no reason for us to ever return” to the old way of doing things.
The league nonetheless has essentially resumed its prior operations.
“Teams aren’t interested in being flexible,” former NFLPA president Eric Winston said in a phone interview. “They’re interested in control and everyone towing the line.”
The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) doesn’t expire until 2030, so changes don’t seem imminent. While side letters and amendments can be made, the league has little incentive to reverse a rule that helps franchises monitor employees and saves teams money if players deviate from their instructions.
Peter Schaffer, a Denver-based NFL agent, says he has been advocating for years for the league to host a blue-ribbon panel with unbiased experts like doctors and former coaches to construct the most efficient offseason program—one that isn’t negotiated with lawyers in a CBA.
“It makes absolutely no sense getting guys in shape from April to the end of June then waving goodbye to (players) for six weeks just to have them show up in July,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s stupid. You don’t have [MLB] spring training starting in January.”
NFL agent Jason Fletcher, who represents general managers and coaches, believes each organization places different emphasis on attendance at voluntary workouts (a phrase seen as an oxymoron around the league, since skipping often comes with unofficial penalties). Position groups and tenure of players also factor in whether management wants a specific player present, Fletcher said.
“Most players don’t like working out with the team [in voluntary OTAs],” Fletcher said in a phone interview. “Most feel as though they’ll get more out of working out with personal trainers of their own. Those are so many specialists out here now who can work on speed work or whatever their niche is.”
While some point to the league as the problem, others—including James—have cast blame on the NFLPA, which had previously advised players to not attend voluntary workouts at team facilities. James tweeted shortly after his injury that if the NFLPA is going to advise players in that way, then it needs to “have [their] backs on the other end” when issues, such as injuries, arise.
NFLPA assistant executive director of external affairs George Atallah did not provide comment after multiple requests. The NFLPA declined to comment. James’ agent, Bill Johnson, did not reply to requests for comment.
James, who was represented by celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, didn’t target the NFLPA in his grievance, only aiming it against the Broncos. It’s uncommon for players from any of the major pro sports associations to go up against their unions.
The league sent out a memo shortly after James’ incident to remind players that they could potentially have their salaries voided if they suffer an injury at a non-team facility.
Both James and the Broncos have moved on; James will play for the Baltimore Ravens this season.
But the impact of his injury lingers, with players pushing for more flexibility during the offseason. The NFLPA must decide how to proceed on the issue.
James received over $18 million from the Broncos, despite missing all but three games in 2019 and opting out of the 2020 season. But his dismissal from the Broncos has implications that go far beyond Denver and will continue to have a ripple effect in future offseasons.
“We need to look at the whole offseason, from every week to the full calendar,” Schaffer said. “We have to examine, dissect and find a way to put the best product on the field while making sure players are safe.”
(This story has been updated in the 14th paragraph that the NFLPA declined to comment.)