Working Out on His Own Just Cost the Denver Broncos’ Ja’Wuan James $10 Million and Caused a Major Fight Between the NFL and the NFLPA

Working out is a major part of an NFL player’s job. They have to stay in peak physical condition in order to play professional football. This is players keep their jobs and get the big money that comes with NFL contracts.

One player, the Denver Broncos’ Ja’Wuan James, recently injured himself while doing his offseason workout. This injury is a big blow to the Broncos but might be an even bigger blow to James’ wallet. The way the NFL is dealing with it is also making the NFL Players Association very unhappy.

Ju’Wuan James is a talented but injury-plagued offensive lineman

Ja’Wuan James | Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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The Miami Dolphins selected James out of the University of Tennessee with pick No. 19 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. In his rookie year, James started all 16 games at right tackle. He followed that up by starting seven games in 2015 before suffering a toe injury but bounced back to start 16 games again in 2016.

Another injury cut short James’ next season as well, this time after eight games, but he once again recovered nicely and played in 15 games in 2018. This season was enough to attract the attention of the Denver Broncos, which resulted in the organization signing the free-agent tackle to a four-year, $51 million contract.

His time in the Mile High City has been a mess so far. In 2019, James went down for the season with a knee injury after just three games. Due to concerns about COVID-19, the former Volunteer opted out of the 2020 NFL season, and now, rupturing his Achilles while working out will cost him the entire 2021 season.

The NFL sent out a memo saying James’ injury negates his $10 million guaranteed salary in 2021

In the wake of James’ injury, the NFL sent out a memo addressed to Chief Executives, Club Presidents, General Managers, and Head Coaches. The message was titled “Injuries Sustained Away From Club Facilities” and addressed the contract implications of James’ injury.

The NFL’s main point is that injuries that happen while players work out at a team facility are football-related injuries. Ones that occur while they work out on their own are non-football injuries. The latter can result in a team being able to get out of paying a player’s guaranteed contract. The memo, released on Twitter by Adam Schefter, states:

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. Such injuries are also not covered by the protections found in paragraph 9 of the NFL Player Contract, meaning that clubs have no contractual obligation to provide salary continuation during the year the injury was sustained.

The memo came amidst tension between the NFL and the NFLPA over voluntary offseason workouts. According to ESPN, the two sides disagree about whether players should attend voluntary offseason workouts at club facilities. The NFL and its teams want the players in-house while the union is encouraging players not to participate due to COVID-19 protocol concerns.

The NFL Player’s Union called the NFL memo ‘gutless’

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In response to the memo, the NFLPA sent an email to players discussing the situation. The email included a strong rebuke of the league for sending this message. “It was gutless,” the NFLPA wrote, “to use a player’s serious injury as a scare tactic to get you to come running back to these workouts.”

The email accuses the NFL of trying to control players’ lives, even in the offseason. It also states that the workout that James was doing involved the consultation of the Broncos coaching staff.

The NFL and NFLPA regularly go to war over all types of issues, big and small. This time though, it does seem more public and more personal for than usual. The league trumpets its concerns for players’ health but often acts contrary to these stated worries. It is easy to see why the NFLPA is rankled by the lack of safety protocols and going after a player’s salary in this manner.

On the other hand, the NFLPA has been taking aim at “voluntary” offseason programs that feel more like mandatory ones for years. It isn’t hard to imagine that some in the NFL office might believe that the union is exploiting COVID-19 concerns to make a point about this situation.

No matter whose side you fall on in this dispute, there is one thing that seems inevitable. This fight isn’t over, and it will likely get messier in the coming days and weeks.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference