In the first practice of the offseason Tuesday morning, rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier took veteran center Maurkice Pouncey to the turf in a team drill. An agitated Pouncey, practicing for the first time since major knee surgery in the fall, had some choice words for the newcomer.
“I told him to chill,” Pouncey said.
Shazier learned his first lesson as an NFL player. Organized team activities, or OTAs, are football practices without live contact. The NFL players association wrote language into the 2011 collective bargaining agreement to ensure that because it wanted to curb offseason injuries.
But rookies, many described as overzealous by their new teammates, come in trying to prove a point; the veterans merely want to escape without injury because they earn their money season to season without the guaranteed contracts pro athletes in other sports enjoy.
Just hours after Pouncey’s skirmish with Shazier, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in practice and could miss the 2014 season.
Lee signed a contract over the offseason that could be worth up to $51 million. The contract included a $10 million signing bonus. His $750,000 salary for this season also was guaranteed. But if Lee cannot come back from the injury, or if the Cowboys do not believe he will be the same player post-injury, they can save nearly $40 million by cutting ties with him.
It’s the very cruel and very real business side of the NFL.
Veteran offensive lineman Ramon Foster is the union representative for the Steelers and deals with issues such as the ones that took place in camps Tuesday. He said coach Mike Tomlin lets the players know the rules for offseason workouts, and the players reinforce them.
“Coach [Tomlin] actually does a really good job with it,” Foster said. “We reinforce it by letting the guys know, just like Pouncey did the other day. He was going against someone young. He said, ‘I just came back from this injury. This is not contact.’ But you still compete.
“If you’re the team, you can’t afford a fine or to get practices taken away, so you follow the rules. They understand it here. I’m not sure what happened in Dallas. Here, we do a pretty good job letting guys know we’re not trying to get injured.”
Veterans don’t have much to gain from OTAs, which are voluntary under the collective bargaining agreement. Yet, the vast majority of players participate in them. So why do veterans participate in a voluntary practice when they can lose so much? Foster took on that question Wednesday:
“The first thing you have to know is that it’s optional. The advantage of being out here is you get a chance to be around the guys. You don’t want to show up in late July and say, ‘Hey, it’s good to see you.’ You don’t have that chemistry of talking to the guys or being around the guys. It’s voluntary, but I think most guys enjoy coming around the team and getting an understanding of what the team is.”
Foster acknowledged the voluntary aspect mean different things to different players. The only two Steelers veterans who did not take part the first two days were defensive backs Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, who are entering their 12th seasons with the team. Polamalu, a potential future Hall of Famer, has a different type of job security than most others who annually fight to retain their jobs.
Five of the team’s draft picks, including Shazier, have not yet signed their rookie contracts. Shazier can expect to earn around $9.5 million in his first contract, but not all of it will be guaranteed.
The players do have some protection if they are injured before signing their rookie contracts. All draft picks and undrafted free agents sign rookie developmental and rookie minicamp participation agreements that state they will be treated as employees with rights. In the case of an injury, the agreement states the team will negotiate in good faith along the parameters set for rookie wages in the collective bargaining agreement as if the player had not been injured.
“I didn’t read any of the guidelines,” Shazier said. “I didn’t see any paperwork, so I don’t know anything about it.”
When asked if he was concerned about injury without a signed contract he said: “It’s hard not to think about it. But I feel like the more you think about it, that’s when people tend to get injured.”
Most first-round picks take out insurance policies when they are in college and keep them as pros. Some veterans with large contracts also have insurance. But players such as Foster, who are playing on smaller contracts, gamble with their futures every time they take the practice field.
“Most guys have the $10 million policy, and they get that check if it’s a career-ender,” said Foster, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent and is in the second year of a three-year contract worth $4.6 million. “You can take that out in college and continue it in the NFL. I don’t have it. For the premium you have to pay, it doesn’t pay for me. For me, you play and you pray it doesn’t happen to you.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.