In a memo leaked this week, the NFL accused the NFLPA of “reckless” conduct in “clear violation” of the collective bargaining agreement.
The subject of the memo, per a copy obtained by Yahoo Sports, was a Zoom call convening NFL running backs in late July. Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, an NFLPA vice president, organized the call for several top running backs to discuss their depreciating market value in an offseason when free-agent contracts plummeted and three top running backs received franchise-tag designations.
In the memo, the league says it will file a grievance alleging that union leadership encouraged players to misrepresent injuries to gain leverage.
“NFL Players Association leadership, including President JC Tretter, have become increasingly vocal in advising NFL Players dissatisfied with their current contracts to consider feigning or exaggerating injuries to withhold service as a way to increase their leverage in contract negotiations,” the memo reads. “We have become aware of a more formal Zoom hosted by the NFLPA with certain NFL Running Backs in which this advice was conveyed.
“This conduct is a clear violation of the union’s agreement.”
The NFLPA denied the allegation.
“The grievance is ridiculous and without merit,” a union representative said in a statement to Yahoo Sports.
An arbitrator may litigate the claim’s veracity in due time. For now, two main questions swirl: Why would the NFLPA encourage players to misconstrue injuries? And if the Zoom call concerned the league, why did it wait nearly two months after the call to send the memo — when the regular season was in full swing?
Yahoo Sports reached out to league and union sources to better understand.
Tactic would hurt, rather than help leverage
Four key running backs already have suffered injuries of varying severity in two weeks of game play.
Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins is out for the season after tearing his Achilles in Week 1. Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb is out for the season after tearing ligaments in his knee in Week 2. Ekeler missed the Chargers’ Week 2 loss with an ankle injury. And New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley has been ruled out for Thursday’s night game at the San Francisco 49ers after his own ankle injury.
These injuries were not staged. And in light of the league’s memo hours before Chubb’s injury, let’s think critically: What impact do injuries have on player leverage?
Sources agreed that injuries detract from rather than bolster player leverage in negotiations. Injuries reinforce league concerns about running back durability rather than urging teams to better value players.
Front-office members and coaches across the league describe the running back market depreciation stemming less from a devaluation of the run game and more as a supply-demand issue of who will produce it. Right or wrong, many teams believe the dropoff from top running back to second-tier isn’t sufficient enough to justify megacontracts at the position. Drafting talented rookie running backs is more justifiable — two went in the top 15 selections of this year’s draft — because a team gets the rights to five cost-controlled years. Many teams believe in allocating higher percentages of their salary cap to costly quarterbacks, pass rushers and even reliable offensive linemen who are increasingly in demand.
Even if replacements for injured running backs can’t replicate the productivity, the position won’t make or break postseason contention, one general manager said.
“That’s the one position,” the general manager told Yahoo Sports, “where even the good ones don’t have the leverage.”
That was evident this summer as Saquon Barkley voiced his displeasure with the New York Giants, Josh Jacobs held out of training camp with the Las Vegas Raiders and Jonathan Taylor held out of training camp — and remains on the physically unable to perform list — with the Indianapolis Colts. None emerged with a contract past this season.
The Giants and Raiders ultimately gave their star backs $900,000 and up to $1.9 million, respectively, in incentives tacked onto the $10.1 million tag cost. Some around the league see this as NFL players using their leverage a bit more strongly than in recent years; others view the additional compensation as paling in comparison to deals dating back as early as Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s 2019 extension that averaged $15 million per year. Why will future teams feel incentivized to give long-term extensions to tagged backs if this solution works?
The Colts did not offer Taylor, entering the fourth and final year of his rookie deal, an extension two years after he led the league in rushing with 1,811 yards (106.5 per game) and 18 touchdowns. Injury history impacted his and Barkley’s power at the negotiating table.
Which leads us to ask: If the case for faking injuries isn’t compelling, why did the league send this memo?
Some sources believe the NFL’s ability to prove the grievance is less important than the message the grievance sends.
Fresh round of league vs. union struggles begins
It took just one week into the NFL season for the union’s new executive director to issue a formal statement.
Credit Aaron Rodgers’ injury for reinvigorating the grass vs. turf debate, one of the union’s top concerns for years and one players were particularly vocal about with a union-orchestrated awareness campaign last season.
Rodgers tore his Achilles four snaps into his New York Jets debut, while playing at home on MetLife Stadium’s turf. The stadium installed new turf this offseason. And Rodgers’ injury came a day after Dobbins’ Achilles tear on Baltimore’s grass field. Both injuries came after tackles went awry rather than via non-contact injuries that are sometimes more directly attributed to field surfaces.
Nonetheless, players including Green Bay Packers offensive tackle David Bakhtiari and Jets wide receiver Randall Cobb were among the chorus railing against the NFL’s turf after Rodgers’ injury. Two days later, the union tweeted a statement from Lloyd Howell, who in June became its first new executive director in 14 years.
“Moving all stadium fields to high quality natural grass surfaces is the easiest decision the NFL can make …” Howell’s statement said, in part. “While we know there is an investment to making this change, there is a bigger cost to everyone in our business if we keep losing our best players to unnecessary injuries.
“This is worth the investment and it simply needs to change now.”
What does this have to do with the league’s recent grievance?
Sources familiar with league and union operations told Yahoo Sports they believe the league’s latest grievance is as much related to the grass-turf debate as it is the question of running back contracts. Was the league simply to stay quiet as the new union director publicly flexed? Tretter went on a podcast in July to discuss how players “need to try to create as much leverage as you possibly can in every situation.” The Zoom call came less than a month into Howell’s term. The grass statement followed within a week of the season.
Sources characterized the league’s grievance as testing the waters, reminding Howell that the collective bargaining agreement is still enforceable and team owners’ leverage is still very much intact.
“If the NFL should let it go unchecked, they’re not doing their job to some degree,” one executive told Yahoo Sports. “I view it as nothing more than a warning shot to the PA.”
Mentioning the injury threat sends a warning, too, to Tretter after his July podcast appearance that may have generated injury suspicion in the first place.
“I don’t think anybody would ever say they were fake injuries, but we’ve seen players who didn’t want to be where they currently are, have injuries that made them unable to practice and play, but you’re not able to get fined, and you’re not able to be punished for not reporting,” Tretter said in a podcast episode with fellow former NFL offensive lineman Ross Tucker. “I don’t think I’m allowed to ever recommend that, at least publicly, but I think each player needs to find a way to build up leverage to try to get a fair deal. And that’s really what all these guys are looking for is to be compensated fairly.”
The running backs Zoom took place days after that podcast aired. Backs across the league also now have a group text, Jets running back Dalvin Cook said.
“Just checking on guys to see how they really think and how they’re really feeling,” Cook said. “You go out there and work your tail off on the football field and you don’t get what you deserve a lot of times, and that can mess with your mentals.”
Cook added that “We tried to come up with an equation this offseason of starting a running back group chat, reaching out to the PA and everything… I don’t got a solution right now.”
No one does, it seems.
The players association would be thrilled to eliminate franchise tags and reduce rookie contracts from four years to three as means to encourage market movement. But its collective bargaining agreement runs through 2030 and it doesn’t currently have sufficient leverage. Tretter acknowledged on the podcast: “If the only thing we’re willing to do is to ask for it, the answer is going to be ‘no’ most of the time.” As Chubb said in July after the Zoom call, the position group is “handcuffed.”
“We’re looking for things we can actually do,” Chubb said. “I don’t think anything was established [yet] as far as that.
“We’re looking for a call to action.”
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