Commentary

Not what they bargained for

CBA loophole hurts injured players now and perhaps conditioning later

Originally Published: May 18, 2012
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

There is always a loophole.

During their contentious negotiations with the National Football League for a new collective bargaining agreement, the players fought hard for a reduction in their workload. They wanted the offseason to really be an offseason. They didn't want to have to live at the practice facility in March, April, May and June.

The players conceded certain things, but they wouldn't budge on their desire to reduce the time they were required to spend under the team's supervision in the offseason.

That decision is going to cost Philadelphia tackle Jason Peters at least $3.25 million. Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs also might find himself lighter in the wallet because, like Peters, Suggs tore his Achilles while working out on his own. Both players suffered what the collective bargaining agreement calls a "non-football injury." According to Article 20, Section 3 of the new CBA, clubs are not required to pay players while they are placed on the Non-football Injury or Illness list.

Peters and Suggs are headed there, so the Eagles and Ravens, therefore, will not be required to pay either player a penny until he returns to health. They can pay if they want, but they aren't obligated to do so.

There are pros and cons to the reduction in offseason and in-season requirements on the players. The offseason has been reduced to a series of short minicamps that are essentially glorified walk-throughs in shorts and helmets. There are also a limited number of in-season practice days in full pads. The goal is to help limit injuries and preserve the players' bodies, although football purists have griped that the new rules will hurt the game because the players won't be adequately prepared.

Soon, they might not be adequately in shape for training camp.

If teams don't have to pay players who are injured away from their facilities, what incentive do players have to work out during the time away from the team facility? Sure, Peters wanted to stay in shape so he could be ready for minicamp and be able to build off a phenomenal 2011 season, when he was the best left tackle in the game. But was it worth $3.25 million, the amount the Eagles will deduct from his base salary and pay to his replacement, Demetress Bell?

Suggs said he was working out in Arizona preparing for the Ravens' conditioning test, which always gives him fits. ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen reported that Suggs would lose money, although how much remains unclear. However much it is, Suggs might decide next time to struggle through the conditioning test.

Sure, if an Achilles is going to pop, it's going to pop. Things happen. But it is unwise for teams to take away players' incentive to show up in shape. It will hurt the player, and it will hurt the team.

[+] EnlargeTerrell Suggs
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesIf a starter such as Terrell Suggs loses money for a "non-football" injury, what message would that send to a player fighting for a roster spot?
Under the new CBA, if Peters or Suggs had suffered his injury at the team's practice facility during the "voluntary" part of the offseason, when coaches and trainers aren't allowed to supervise workouts, they still would be in danger of losing money. A "non-football" injury is a "non-football" injury, no matter where it occurs.

But coaches expect players to study playbooks, to watch film on their own and to be in shape. Just don't get hurt in the process.

Peters and Suggs are lucky that they have status. Both are well-respected by their peers and are All-Pro players at their positions. They are proven veterans and team leaders. When deciding whether to withhold any or all of their salaries in the aftermath of the injuries, the Eagles and Ravens have to weigh how the decision will play in the locker room.

Suggs has missed three games in nine seasons. The man has played through pain and injury. To withhold his pay now, to be disloyal to a loyal employee, would not be well-received. Peters has missed six starts in three seasons since the Eagles signed him to a five-year deal in 2009. Unlike Suggs, he probably will miss the entire season after recently reinjuring the Achilles in a freak fall in his kitchen.

What happens when the 48th player on a team's roster suffers a significant "non-football" injury while training? He's the guy who needs to be training the most because he is fighting for a job every day. He can't lose focus. He doesn't have a guaranteed roster spot, so to report to a minicamp or training camp in anything other than tip-top shape would be foolish. His career is on the line.

But if the 48th player whose career is on the line every day injures himself while working with a trainer or at a gym in his hometown, forget about it. That guy can have his salary withheld and no one, except for him and his agent, would make a peep.

This surely wasn't the intent of the players when they fought so hard for a reduction in the offseason program. Plenty spend tons of money on personal trainers. It's not like the players today don't understand the value of eating well and working out. They want to be in elite shape.

But the inescapable question in the wake of the Peters and Suggs injuries is this: Given that teams will always find loopholes in the CBA, was it worth it?