On May 5, the NFL Management Council disseminated a memorandum based on several NFL teams asking about the contractual implications resulting from the fact that James’ injury occurred away from his team’s — the Denver Broncos — facility, and whether James’ $10 million salary, fully guaranteed for skill, injury, and salary cap purposes, could be stricken.
“Injuries sustained while a player is working out ‘on his own’ in a location other than an NFL facility are considered ‘Non-Football Injuries’ and are outside the scope of a typical skill, injury and cap guarantee,” states the memo. “Such injuries are also not covered by protections found in paragraph 9 of the NFL Player Contract, meaning that clubs have no contractual obligation to provide salary continuation during the year in which the injury was sustained.”
The above is distinguished from what is considered to be “Football-Related Injuries,” which include injuries sustained by a player while he is working out at a club facility.
The NFL has recognized that several players have expressed surprise over the distinction, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. He has a point. Why would a player be penalized for working out, regardless of the location of the workout, which in most cases would prevent injury and put the player in a position to be prepared for the rigors of participating in the NFL?
Instead of addressing the questionable purpose that supports a distinction being made for someone like James, the NFL focused the end of its memo on calling out the NFL Players Association which, as noted by former NFL second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz, has encouraged many players to voluntarily stay away from teams’ facilities during the offseason.
“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,” states the memo. This appears to be a statement made in direct response to players from 20 teams choosing to boycott voluntary offseason workouts at their teams’ facilities citing COVID-19 concerns.
It is not yet known whether the Broncos will attempt to void James’ salary based on the season-ending injury he has sustained. More likely than not, the NFL Players Association will fight the team if it tries to avoid its normal compensation obligations with James, probably resting heavily on the change of conditions and obligation to adjust for the concerns that remain revolving around COVID-19. However, those concerns are likely losing their probative value as vaccines continue to be made readily available to the general population around the United States.
Darren Heitner is the founder of Heitner Legal. He is the author of How to Play the Game: What Every Sports Attorney Needs to Know, published by the American Bar Association, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @DarrenHeitner.