Updated: Jul 20, 2022
The NFL Combine is scheduled to return after a one-year hiatus on March 1st, giving a chance for this year’s top prospects and late-round sleepers alike to showcase their skills in front of a national audience in what is the pinnacle of the pre-draft process. Or maybe not. As of Sunday evening, agents representing more than 150 prospects have said their clients will be boycotting the combine, citing concerns over the league’s “bubble” policy that would be in effect during the week-long showcase1.
The NFL released a memo to the participants of the combine Sunday, outlining Covid-related protocols that, if broken, would result in them being “disqualified from further participation and sent home”2. To further complicate matters for the league, the NFLPA has officially voiced their support of the players participating in the boycott, saying that they “agree and support the decisions by those to not attend”3. The NFLPA’s support of these players should come as no surprise, as the union has a long history of opposing the combine4.
For NFL prospects to take a stand against the league like this is certainly unprecedented, and with the backing of the NFLPA, this could bring about real change in the power dynamics of the players and the league. The combine has been a sort of “void-filler” for the NFL, taking place after the Super Bowl and before the draft and providing entertainment for fans at no real cost to the league5. In short, the combine serves as a job interview for prospects, with the NFL dictating the time, place, hotel accommodations, food provided, and player contacts. For a league built on its players and their ability to perform at the highest of levels, allowing more freedom to those who will become those same players is vital to promoting good relations with the NFLPA. As we have seen recently with MLB, player unions and leagues are very willing to go through long negotiation processes and even arbitration, which is something the NFL certainly wants to avoid if possible.
The path to avoiding labor disputes such as the current MLB/MLBPA conflict is by working with the NFLPA when it voices concerns, especially in a new frontier such as the prospect boycott of the combine. I think the decision the NFL makes, whether to appease these grievances or to double-down on their current policy, will be indicative of a potentially shifting power dynamic between the players and the “shield”. Those who follow the NFL closely know it as a league with immense power in the hands of the league office, with player power relatively dwarfed by Roger Goodell & Co. The NBA, however, places a lot of power into the hands of the players, and it will be interesting to watch the NFL to see whether pressure from the NBA “player-centric” league potentially impacts future labor disputes. The two sides are in negotiations to reach a compromise on the issue6.
*Update* The NFL announced Monday evening that it will be scrapping its “bubble” idea, signaling a win for the NFLPA and the players who threatened the boycott. Although the players are not yet part of the player’s union, ultimately, the power of the union reigned supreme in these negotiations. I would keep an eye on this as a potential jumping-off point for the NFLPA to work to repeal other Covid-related policies the NFL will potentially have in place for the upcoming season."