Pretend, for a moment, that you love your job. It's physically demanding, but the money's great, there's a ton of time off, and you can have all the free Gatorade you want. During one of your breaks, the boss calls and asks you to come in for 12 days of voluntary training sessions. "We feel these exercises will spark the company's performance," he says.
O.K., gang, who's coming?
In the NFL, virtually everyone is—to off-season minicamps, quarterback schools and passing camps that are optional in name only. Most players aren't thrilled about having to punch the clock on their own time, but they're not stupid either: If a star whose work habits and toughness are beyond reproach can get ripped for skipping voluntary workouts, as Colts running back Edgerrin James was earlier this month, anyone with lesser credentials could be risking his career.
Even though the collective bargaining agreement obliges veterans to attend only a single four-day minicamp, coaches often schedule an additional 14 days of full-squad sessions. "In the NFL, voluntary minicamp is an oxymoron," says agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents James. "The collective bargaining agreement protects players, but only on paper. As long as the coach decides who starts and who's in favor or disfavor, any player who chooses not to attend one of these sessions does so at his own peril."
When a player blows off one of these allegedly elective sessions—because he's unhappy with his contract, has a scheduling conflict or simply would rather take that fishing trip to Cabo San Lucas—he's treated like Jim Jeffords at a GOP caucus. Two-time league rushing champ James, who says he chose to "chill" in Miami rather than fly to Indianapolis for 12 days of workouts, got public scoldings from coach Jim Mora and quarterback Peyton Manning. That's nothing compared with the rebuke received by Cowboys linebacker Darren Hambrick. Despite leading Dallas with 154 tackles last year, Hambrick was stripped of his starting job by coach Dave Campo after skipping two of the team's three voluntary workouts. (Said Campo: "We are going to play guys that want to be here.")
Yet coaches can't be faulted for trying to carve out competitive advantages, and even many players believe off-season participation is key. Giants coach Jim Fassel and Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon each cited the camaraderie, precision and fitness forged during last year's heavily attended off-season sessions as reasons for their teams' successful 2000 campaigns.
Our solution? Go back to the bargaining table. Start by calling the additional sessions what they are: mandatory off-season workouts. Agree on the number and dates, and give players significant sums of money for attending. In the meantime, if Edgerrin James wants to exercise his freedom of choice, the rest of us should chill.