Photo credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dear NFL players,

Despite what you may read and hear, you don’t have to attend organized team activities. This is not conditional, and your job status cannot be affected by your absence. OTAs are voluntary. In fact, they’re “strictly voluntary,” according to the collective bargaining agreement all of you negotiated through your union. It doesn’t matter whether you’re an established star like Eric Berry or Odell Beckham Jr., a rookie undrafted free agent trying to make an impression, or a career practice squadder clinging to one last chance at making someone’s 53-man roster. That “strictly voluntary” designation applies to all of you.

I bring this up because you’ve probably seen plenty of reports about the absence of some of your peers from OTAs. These news items almost always gesture at the reality that OTAs are indeed voluntary, but they’re often framed to give the impression that the word “voluntary” has some elastic definition.

Advertisement

“Voluntary or not, coaches want their players to participate—especially since the players who play for their competitors are doing just that,” said one.

“[OTAs are] a voluntary practice opportunity but one that coaches encourage with gusto,” said another.

“And everyone should know that if you have a history of defiance, deciding to skip work, even if it’s not mandatory, is going to resonate a certain way,” said another.

“Yeah, but the voluntary part is in quotes,” said yet another, who also wrote that OTAs “are voluntary but really not.”

These are all reporters speaking, you’ll note, because coaches can be fined for telling players that OTAs are anything but voluntary. Why would the media choose to do management’s dirty work here?

Please understand, players: That voluntary part is not in scare quotes. You are not “deciding to skip work” by avoiding OTAs. To say as much is to engage in a gross misreading the same CBA that ownership and management consistently weaponize against you and exploit at your expense.

Advertisement

Mealy-mouthed talk that suggests the word “voluntary” means anything other than “optional” only serves the interests of that same ownership and management and attempts to shame you into doing more than you’re contractually obligated to do as a minimum condition of your employment. Some of you fall into this trap by avoiding OTAs to register your disappointment with contract negotiations. But it’s an empty maneuver. You don’t have to be there in the first place.

(Obviously, if you negotiated into your contract a cash bonus for showing up to OTAs, go get your money. And, as a commenter noted shortly after this post was published, a serious injury during a workout at the team facility guarantees your salary for the upcoming season, whereas an injury sustained elsewhere may allow your team to withhold it. More here.)

It’s June. There are still three months until NFL games will be played. Reporters need to make use of the access they’re granted to watch you run around in shorts. This is why so many of them turn into study hall proctors taking roll call whenever they’re standing on the sidelines watching OTAs. It’s what compels them to ask your coaches about any absences. And have you noticed the way your coaches invariably answer these questions by grudgingly acknowledging that OTAs are voluntary? Take Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, for example (emphasis mine):

Advertisement

“It’s a voluntary camp. Let me tell you how I work on this whole thing about guys not being here. I can allow [the media] out here one time. If I get pummeled on who’s here and who’s not here, we’ll just do the one. We come out here, we give you every day that you can talk to these guys, so don’t worry about all of that. It’s a voluntary camp and that’s how I’m going to answer it every time you ask.”

Can’t you just picture Reid gritting as teeth as he said that? And how about Giants head coach Ben McAdoo? Here’s what he recently had to say about OTAs:

“You want all your players here, especially your great players. It’s a time to build fundamentals, communication and chemistry. You want all your players here.”

Nothing subtle about the message being sent there, huh? But did you know about Article 21-5(a) of the CBA? Because this is what it says:

Until any of this stuff is mandatory—and none of it is until your three-day minicamp later this month, followed by training camp, which begins at the end of July—your coaches are not permitted to even hint to you that OTAs are anything but optional. In fact, according to Article 21-8(a), your coach and your team can be fined for trying to hold any absences from any voluntary workouts against you:

You play a sport that demands obedience and deference to authority. Ownership and management have long been able to leverage this to control your behavior on your own time. They can imply you’re not doing your job—that you’re not a “team player”—for failing to appear at OTAs, even when they know you don’t have to be there, even when they know this is something you specifically negotiated into being. Ownership’s and management’s courtiers in the football press then largely run with this narrative, either because of ignorance or inertia, seeding the public with the false idea that an absence from a voluntary activity amounts to insubordination. (And if pressed on it, they resort to the last refuge of someone with no argument: “It’s bad optics.”) The $14-billion-a-year league you play for will stop at nothing to nickel-and-dime you on matters pertaining to your health and your discipline, and to limit your compensation and your ability to bargain for what you’re truly worth. This CBA has stripped you of the ability to strike and to hold out from mandatory team activities. But workouts like OTAs are “strictly voluntary,” and as long as words have meaning, that means they’re entirely up to you. You should stay away. Your time is your time.

Advertisement

Sincerely,
A football fan