With more than a dozen teams now opting out of offseason workouts to some extent, and the NFL Players Association recommending that players skip any in-person activities until training camp, it's important to stress exactly what is going on here, and what it all means.
With the exception of a three-day minicamp that can take place between May 24 and June 18, the league's entire offseason program is voluntary. Wait, hang on, let's be perfectly clear. According to the collective bargaining agreement that governs the relationship between management and players, these activities are "strictly voluntary." This means, despite a lot of hand-wringing in the press about the potential for competitive imbalances and divergent priorities among different groups of players, teams can't do anything to those who choose not to show up. Like, literally nothing.
This is not some trivial matter. What's at stake involves honoring a contract, which ought to be a pretty straightforward principle of labor relations. The players, through their union, successfully bargained for these workplace conditions as part of the 2011 CBA, and those provisions are also a feature of the pact signed with the league last year. The 2020 offseason took place virtually due to the pandemic, with no noticeable effect on the on-field product. The pandemic's continued existence has simply presented the NFLPA with the opportunity to remind its members of what it has already earned.
Last year was an exception, of course, but the NFL's elastic definition of the word "voluntary" tends to pop up every spring whenever a player with some name recognition elects not to attend organized team activities (OTAs). This is true whether a player's absence is related to a contract squabble or just because the player would rather not spend April, May, and early June shuffling around the team facility. Then, every September, all that OTA attendance-taking is forgotten.
To be clear: Absences from OTAs are not holdouts, which pertain to mandatory activities like training camp and in-season practices and meetings. This is an often-overlooked distinction, but it's still a significant one.
Nonetheless, coverage of the way players choose to approach OTAs frequently frames the issue around team loyalty, or the potential for bad influences, or the desires of coaches who, if the rules allowed for it, would just as soon schedule full-pad two-a-days every day between the Super Bowl and Labor Day. But the specific point here is that the rules don't allow for it. The players made sure of that by specifically negotiating this into reality.
No, really. It says so in Article 21-1 of the CBA:
No player shall be required to attend or participate in any offseason workout program or classroom instruction of a Club other than as provided in Article 22. Any other Club offseason workout programs and classroom instruction sessions shall be strictly voluntary and shall take place in the manner and time period set forth in this Article.