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Players from a majority of teams now say they will skip voluntary workouts

At least some players from 19 NFL teams say they will skip the in-person portions of voluntary workouts.

Chiefs practice David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

It all started last Tuesday when the NFL Players Association released a statement from Denver Broncos players that said they would skip the voluntary in-person portions of their team’s offseason program — which is scheduled to begin today: Monday, April 19. By the end of the day on Wednesday, players from the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots had joined them.

Since then, the NFLPA has been releasing a steady stream of other such statements. In all, players from 19 of the league’s 32 teams have issued similar statements through their union — although Kansas City Chiefs players have not been among them.

But some of the most recent players’ statements have included language suggesting that while a particular team’s players may stand in support of the collective action, individuals might still make their own choices.

For example, the statement from Philadelphia Eagles players released on Sunday said that “our players will not be attending in-person voluntary workouts” — but then went on to say that “we know that every player has to make a decision that is best for him.” The statement from San Francisco 49ers players said that “many in our locker room have chosen not to attend some or all phases of the voluntary in-person workouts.” New York Jets players said that “many of us will exercise our CBA right and not attend in-person voluntary workouts.”

Under longstanding rules, a large portion of each NFL team’s offseason program is, in fact, voluntary. Individual players are not required to attend these parts of the programs — and teams are specifically prohibited from putting pressure on them to do so.

But that’s not the only kind of pressure that exists. Some of it comes from other players — and fans, too. As Peter King wryly noted in his NBC Sports “Football Morning in America” column on Monday, “the workouts have morphed from ‘voluntary’ to ‘you must not like football much if you skip them’ over the years.”

So I am all for players who say they’re not showing up. The players, though, must understand possible consequences. If some in your position group show up and you don’t, and if they’re ahead of you come training camp, that’s the cost of not going.

King also suggested that much of this might be for show.

I would bet that some players on teams that issued statements saying players won’t be attending the voluntary workouts will actually attend them—and we won’t know it. There’s no benefit for teams to announce which players are attending and which are not.

Still... even before the coronavirus pandemic, it had become routine for star players, veterans rehabbing from recent injuries — or players in the midst of contract negotiations — to skip voluntary activities. There’s only rarely been evidence that missing them has made much difference to these veterans. But the same might not be true for young players — or newly-signed veterans — who are anxious to make a good impression with coaches.

It’s important to remember that as it continues to make its way forward through what (we hope) will be the end of the coronavirus pandemic, the league has already mandated that all team meetings must be held virtually — and all of the players’ statements have said nothing about skipping virtual team activities. In the end, this may end up being nothing more than the NFLPA making use of an opportunity to remind players — and teams — that “voluntary” actually means... voluntary.