COVID-19 AND NFL FREE AGENCY: HOW TO ANTICIPATE THE UNKNOWN

Photo Credit: DynastyLeagueFootball

With exciting new moves in Buffalo (hello Stefon Diggs!) the 2020 free agency gave NFL fans a bit of excitement and distraction during these tragic times. However, anyone reading about these moves must wonder what we all have begun wondering when nearly anything happens: how will COVID-19 affect this?

The NFL has restricted travel and many teams have shut down their facilities in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Due to this, the team-organized physicals that are performed before almost any deal is completed cannot be executed. What this means for teams is that they are unable at this time to make a deal with a player with the usual certainty they typically have when a physical has been conducted.

One solution to this hurdle is to have independent doctors located near a player complete the physical. From recent news, it sounds like this is what Tom Brady will be doing before the Buccaneers officially sign him. Another solution is for the team to write a clause into its contracts to limit its liability. The clause would expressly condition a free agent’s eligibility to receive and retain bonuses and would depend on an injury guarantee upon the player passing a physical examination by the team’s doctor of choice once the travel restrictions are listed.

This sounds great for the team, but what about the players? It is completely out of the players’ hands that travel is restricted and physicals cannot be executed in a timely fashion upon signing a deal. In this case should the player be faced with the decision to either turn away a deal or roll the dice?

Shane Costa, a certified NFLPA Agent, and UB Law alumnus was kind enough to answer my questions and shed some light on whether or not these contract provisions are negotiable, of if they are entirely bound by the standard player contract, which is bargained for as part of the CBA.

Shane explained that in general, the standard contract without any addenda is bargained for via the CBA. However, there is language that is negotiable, which is typically language regarding bonuses, guaranteed money, and physicals. In regard to these negotiable terms, Shane notes, “the burden is on the team, the union, and the players’ agents to ensure an understanding of what language surrounding physicals (usually appearing in the addenda to the contract) exists and if the results of failed physicals will affect any guaranteed money. There is room for negotiation in these areas.”

The big unknown is the duration of time we could all be facing travel restrictions. Certain deals between teams and players could be nearly impossible to navigate if travel restrictions last for months, leaving both teams and players extremely vulnerable. For example, if Diggs was unable to take and pass a physical examination before the draft, what would happen in a scenario where the Vikings already used the Bills’ pick, as given to them in the trade for Diggs? These types of questions will continue to surface as we all learn to navigate this new and profoundly complicated landscape. It is important to note that when it comes to trades and the contingency of passing a physical, gray areas still remain and are generally a league issue, which needs to be addressed by the NFL.

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