Offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, recently released by the Denver Broncos, has filed a grievance against the team seeking $15 million in lost salaries. James sustained a torn Achilles’ tendon while working out away from the Broncos’ team facilities.
The NFL sent a memo to teams in May stating any 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 [salary] cap guarantee” in players’ contracts. Of the $15 million sought in the grievance, $10 million was guaranteed in James’s contract for skill, injury, and salary cap in 2021, while the other $5 million was guaranteed for injury in 2022. The NFL also stated in the same memo that “injuries sustained by a player while working out at a club facility or as specifically authorized by his club are considered ‘Football-Related Injuries,'” which would entitle players to payment of their salaries among other protections.
The dispute between Denver and Ja’Wuan James has highlighted the controversial provision of Article 20 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Denver placed the former first-round draft pick on the non-football injury list, contending that James was not entitled to be paid on account that James’s injury was sustained during a voluntary workout away from team facilities. Ja’Wuan was consequently released from the team soon thereafter.
James’s grievance argues he “was not working out on his own.” Ja’Wuan and his legal advisors allege he was training as a result of being “expressly and impliedly” authorized by members of the Broncos staff. The grievance goes on to claim James was working out with other players from the team and acting as a mentor for younger players as requested by Denver. Additionally, it alleges Bronco’s facilities “were not in compliance with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment COVID-19 guidelines and/or restrictions” when James suffered his injury. “The fact that Claimant was injured during a football workout for Respondent while trying to stay safe during a global pandemic supports a finding that Claimant is entitled to his contractually guaranteed salary and a finding by the appropriate tribunal that the injury was not an NFI [non-football injury].” In summary, even though James suffered his injury while away from team facilities, he was working out with teammates, at least partially in a mentorship capacity, and by means “specifically authorized” by Denver.
James’s attorneys Mark J. Geragos and Ben Meisalas filed the grievance on his behalf. They previously represented Colin Kaepernick in his grievance against the league for collusion to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL. Although James’s current grievance does not allege collusion, there is a strong inkling of a potential collusion claim to come. The NFL memo sent to teams addressing James’s situation was followed by the Broncos placing James on the reserve/non-football injury list two days later. A week after, the Broncos ultimately cut James from the team.
James could foreseeably plan to argue that the timeline of events indicates the Broncos acted at the directive of the NFL. Proof of collusion would entitle James to twice the amount of compensatory damages, bringing the value of the grievance to a potential $30 million.
Tensions between the NFL and the NFL Players Association have been high this offseason over players’ activity in voluntary offseason workouts. Both the NFL and NFLPA have elected to remain silent on James’s grievance for the time being. Denver will expectedly argue that James was aware that workouts away from the team facility were strictly voluntary, and the team was not responsible for any injuries that may occur in such circumstances.