The NFLPA's relationship with the agent community, in the best of times, is tenuous. Currently, it's largely contentious.
The recent conference call between union officials and NFL rookies and their agents did not go well. There was plenty of yelling and boiling over frustration and differing opinions about what this offseason should look like for the league's newest employees, how important it is for these youngsters to be at team facilities, and the potential costs of growing tension between veterans and entry-level players. And, frankly, I'm with the agents I've talked to on this one.
In case you are somehow not aware, the NFL and NFLPA are waging a cold war of sorts about the future of spring football. Players are flexing their muscles and, in a series of statements issued by most of the rosters of NFL teams, making it clear that those currently under contract are not going to be working out at team facilities or taking part in voluntary OTAs. And that is collectively bargained and I've long been a proponent of individuals making their own decision based on the options available to them per their labor agreement.
But what's going on with the young men just drafted last week -- or those undrafted players who signed as free agents right after the draft -- is something very different. Before these kids have even signed their deal, they are being put under tremendous pressure by the NFLPA to stay away from their facility, ignore in-person activities as much as possible, and align with those who have long been paying union dues on a cause that, frankly, will only benefit those already established as NFL players at the expense of these players who have yet to even enter an NFL facility.
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Several players and agents have told me union representatives from some teams -- in many cases prominent veterans who have already achieved generational wealth -- are strongly urging (some might say attempting to bully) these rookies to skip out on these meetings and walkthroughs and practices that are actually quite necessary for those just making the jump from the college game. And arguments on both sides were made, quite forcefully at times I'm told, on the conference call where union execs and president JC Tretter -- entering his second season -- made it clear their desire for NFL players young and old to band together in unison to stay away from facilities in hopes of getting the league to became far more virtual in the spring moving forward.
"Total (bleep) show," as one prominent agent put it. "They are putting these kids in a horrible position."
"It got pretty ugly," said another agent who participated on the call. "People were losing their cool. It sucks they get drafted right into the middle of this pissing match between the league and the PA. And now rookies are caught up in the middle of something that really isn't about them at all. And it's not about the pandemic, either."
Consider how many of these youngsters did not get to practice or play as normally in 2020. Their development was altered to some degree or another, and now they are about to make the biggest leap, professionally, one could make, and they are being pushed to forget about making a great first impression, forget about how badly they need to get in the weight room and start learning more about their schemes and systems. Forget about the fact that all of the millionaires commanding them to stay away actually benefitted from all of the things these kids are being asked to skip.
Forget about the fact those players did not enter the league after a pandemic year. Forget the fact that their union leadership were allowed to make visits to NFL teams and get wined and dined by owners and spend time on a whiteboard with coaches, getting to impress team brass in a way the 2021 drat class simply did not. Forget about the fact, if you can, that the very men who actually stand to benefit most by rookies staying away are the guys leading the charge against in-season offseasons of any sort.
"It really kind of makes me sick," another agent said. "Let's be real about what's going on here, and I am saying this as someone who has been in this business a long time and represented all types of players including plenty of guys who have been on the (NFLPA) executive committee.
"But this is (BS). The veterans don't want to be there. OK. I get that. I'm with them. That's been collectively bargained and what's voluntary is voluntary. They're grown men with families and they don't need those reps. But they also know if they aren't there, someone else is getting those reps. And these are the players who would be getting them. And they really need that time and opportunity to be around their coaches, especially this year. And they want to take that away and box those kids out, too, knowing that isn't in their best interest -- because they know exactly what it meant to them. You can't tell me this isn't also about job protection for the guys who have been paying dues for years."
Another prominent agent said: "I don't know how anyone could look one of these rookies in the eye, or talk to their parents, and tell them it's in their best interest not to report to the team that just drafted them. That's crazy. What they're asking them to do isn't fair."
Another longtime agent: "I had to tell my guys, 'Your union rep may be a great player and a good guy, but what they are asking you to do is (BS).' This doesn't have your best interest at heart."
I have yet to have a private conversation with an agent who is doing anything but strongly suggesting that their rookie take part in as much in-person offseason work as possible. That doesn't mean there aren't some out there. Somewhere. I guess. But short of telling them to fall in line because there might be veteran backlash in the locker room, it's hard to see what these kids have to gain by adopting the hardline stance of others.
It feels like classism to me. I am a devoutly pro-labor person at my core, and I am all about any NFL players exercising any collectively bargained rights, or potential advantage, possible. But the transition to the league is hard enough without being caught in the middle of yet another tug-of-war between the millionaires and the billionaires. They just endured a final college season under circumstances that seemed incomprehensible just 14 months ago. They were asked to live like hermits on many barren campuses so that the multibillion dollar college football machine could keep churning. They were treated as guinea pigs of sorts as seasons stopped and started. They faced daunting decisions about opting out amid a generational health crisis, and now their being asked to shun the normal onboarding process in their new job after their growth was already compromised in so many cases by all that 2020 offered.
Yeah, that would be a hard pass for me. You wait 20-plus years to be drafted, you dream about it forever, you are eager to start immersing yourself in your new job, eager to finally explore the workplace. You cannot wait to show what you can do and start trying to make yourself better after struggling to have somewhere to work out a year ago. You cannot wait to get taught and coached by men who you largely only got to know through Zoom these past five months.
We've asked enough of these kids, already. Leave them out of this. This rookie class is facing more unique circumstances and challenges already. Let them head to work in peace, enjoy their rookie camp and do what's best for themselves, free of guilt or shame or scorn.