NFLPA’s consequential victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars prompts Tom Coughlin’s firing

The holiday season came early for linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. this year as he had  $700,000 in fines rescinded on behalf of the NFL Player’s Association. Those fines were issued by Fowler’s former team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, which has traded away back-to-back top-five draft picks in Fowler (#3 overall in 2015) and star cornerback Jalen Ramsey (#5 overall in 2016). Both ex-Jaguars now play for the Los Angeles Rams and have had choice words about their time in northern Florida; as for the source of their resentment, the team’s former Executive Vice President, Tom Coughlin, is the overwhelming culprit.

Fowler’s case was brought to the NFLPA’s attention when the Jaguars asserted that the Florida native had missed 25 mandatory appointments with a team trainer last season, resulting in the aforementioned fines. However, because the appointments were made during the offseason, they were in violation of the CBA which clearly states (Article 4 section 9f), “salary may not be subject to forfeiture for missing voluntary offseason programs or voluntary minicamps…” The NFLPA also released a statement saying as much and added that the Jaguars had recently decided that they would require all injured players to get their offseason rehab at the Jaguars’ facility, however this policy did not render those rehab programs mandatory.

For his part, Fowler was rightfully animated over the news of his exoneration and let the world know on Twitter, and as it turns out he is far from the only ex-Jaguar to take issue with his former team. Jalen Ramsey, the only First-Team-All-Pro Jaguar in over a decade,   loudly griped his way out of Jacksonville over similar frustrations with management, specifically Tom Coughlin, who was responsible for the fines handed down to Fowler. However, more interestingly, since the club’s 2017 AFC Championship run, more than 25% of player grievances have been filed against the Jaguars.

As for Jacksonville, while their sudden fall from the NFL canopy has been ugly, their reputation around the league has become even uglier. For one, the decision to trade two franchise players in Fowler and Ramsey has left a bad taste in the mouths of their teammates, especially given the public nature in which it unfolded. Ramsey was instrumental to that 2017 run and Fowler would lead the Jags in sacks if he were still on the team. However, though team owner Shad Kahn took steps this week to mitigate these disasters by firing Tom Coughlin, there is still widespread distrust toward the club that could hamper Jacksonville’s attractiveness in free agency.

In the wake of its victory against the Jaguars, the NFLPA sent a letter out to every player in the league notifying them of Fowler’s case and warning them of potentially signing with the team. The statement said that players, “continue to be at odds with Jaguars management over their rights under the CBA far more than any other clubs.” For the second year in a row, the team failed to win more than six games and figure to be in an even tougher spot for the upcoming season. As it stands now, the Jaguars have the third-lowest cap space to operate with for the pending offseason and have many holes to fill. Time will tell just how far back Coughlin’s policies have set the Jaguars’ timeline to contending again and how players around the league will view Jacksonville as a potential landing spot this offseason.

Jacoby Ellsbury & MLBPA vs. New York Yankees

This week the MLB Players’ Association filed a grievance against the New York Yankees on behalf of the team’s former center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in an attempt to recoup the remaining $26 million that he argues is owed to him. After winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, Ellsbury signed a seven year, $153 million contract with the Yankees, however went on to miss a staggering 452 games between 2014-2019. For reference, in that same time frame the Yankees played 972 games (excluding playoffs), meaning the speedy outfielder appeared in just over 53% of those contests. If that wasn’t already hard enough to stomach, according to Fangraphs, Ellsbury registered a wRC+ (explanation below)* of 96 as a New York Yankee, so he was roughly 4% worse than league average.

While it is impossible to understate how disappointing Ellsbury’s tenure in the Big Apple was, his contract, like the vast majority of MLB contracts, was fully guaranteed therefore the $153 million was never contingent upon performance or even playing for that matter. However, the Yankees allege that the former silver slugger violated his contract by receiving unauthorized medical treatment which allowed them to convert his contract to “non-guaranteed” and then subsequently release him.

According to the Yankees, the 36-year-old was treated for an injury by Dr. Viktor Bouquette in Atlanta without the team’s consent, yet Ellsbury argues that the treatment was for a non-baseball-related injury, which does not require permission. The CBA essentially states that as long as the “Non-Work-Related Injury does not affect the Player’s ability to provide services,” then the player is exempt from disclosing treatment procedures. However, seeing as Ellsbury had not played a game since the end of 2017, which coincidentally is around the same time it is alleged that he started seeing Dr. Bouquette, it will be tough for the MLBPA to prove that there is no link between the two.

Though Ellsbury’s medical records are protected under medical privacy, if there is truly no causal connection between his NWR injury and the right oblique strain that was the first of his slew of 2018 injuries, then he and the MLBPA could and should release those medicals to prove that they are wholly unrelated.

There is a lot at stake for both sides in this case that will be heard by arbitrator Mark Irvings, who will be making a significant ruling next month in another dispute between player and club. For the Yankees, after the historic Gerrit Cole signing, their 2020 payroll ballooned to $243 million, which carries a significant luxury tax. The tax threshold (number at which team’s must pay extra for every dollar over) for next season is $208 million. The Yankees will pay 30% on ever dollar between $208 million and $228 million, 42% between $228-$248 million, and 75% beyond $248 million. So, the Yankees would stand to gain substantially if they lower that figure from $243 million, which would represent $12.3 million in taxes, to $217 million, which would only tax them $2.7 million.

As for Ellsbury, he is still rehabbing but is looking more like a liability than an asset so this $26 million could represent the last paycheck of his player career. However, for the MLBPA it goes a bit deeper as this case could set a meaningful precedent. It brings to mind a 2010 dispute between Carlos Beltran and the New York Mets over a similar issue that never reached litigation. In any case, the verdict in this conflict between the MLBPA and the Yankees could either be the final insult for foolish free-agent spenders or a sign to those same regretful investors that there are in fact legal ways to wriggle their way out of those abominable contracts.

*wRC+ means weighted Runs Created adjusted. This statistic is meant take external factors (such as ballpark or era) into account to paint a picture of a player’s overall value to any given MLB team. 100 represents league average, so a player with a wRC+ of 150 means that player is 50% better than league average and vice versa. wRC+ is widely regarded as one of the best indicators of a player’s true value.

Boxer Patrick Day Passes Away Four Days After Knockout

Last month, the sporting world was struck by the news of the passing of professional boxer Patrick Day. Following a knockout loss to Charles Conwell in a super welterweight title bout, Day fell into a coma and four days later, died from brain trauma injuries. The phenomenon of boxing-related deaths is nothing new, however debate surrounding the ethics, safety, and legal ramifications of the sport is on the rise in light of this tragic case and others.

The immediate reaction has been quite polarized with some saying that death is simply part of the risk that is run in participating in such a violent sport, while others have called for the abolition of boxing entirely. However, the most pragmatic solution came from Day’s promoter, Lou DiBella, who called for better safety measures to ensure more protections for those in the ring. This week, he outlined a number of suggestions that would increase safety such as elevated scrutiny of Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use and more attention toward weight loss and dehydration. Others have called for the sport to go a step further by adding increased padding to gloves and headgear and shortening fights.

The difficulty in changing the fundamental safety structure of any organization is the necessity to prove that a safety issue exists in the first place. Similar to what happened to large tobacco companies and what the pharmaceutical industry is currently dealing with, the NFL spent billions trying to disprove that there was in fact a safety problem with its product because of the negative consequences acknowledging such a problem would, and did, carry. Even though the NFL concussion settlement has already paid out almost 700 million dollars to retired veterans, the case is still ongoing and already has caused many players to retire earlier than they might have without the revelation of CTE and has made countless families to reconsider whether they want their child playing football.

So, the question for boxing is: does the sport need to acknowledge that it has a safety problem? Well, the answer is a lot harder than you might think. Two of the biggest forces in pushing the NFL to admit that it had its own safety issue were well-recognized trends of player brain injuries and public opinion pressures — both of which the sport of boxing lacks. The revelation of CTE in ex-NFL players such as Terry Long and Junior Seau became widespread predominantly because of headlines that detailed these former stars acting extremely out of character following their careers. That they both died from suicide grabbed the eye of the sports world and these “anomalies” evolved into evidence in what would become the trend that would force the NFL to overhaul its rules.

However, boxing doesn’t have the widespread publicity, star power, resources, nor a meaningful trend to begin considering modifying its safety regulations. Although the death of Patrick Day was the fourth boxing-related death in 2019, he was only the first American to die of injuries sustained in a bout since 2006. And, although four deaths in a single year is a new high for boxing, many other years have seen two and three deaths. Moreover, though there have been eight boxing-related passings since 2017, from 2014 to 2016 there was only one so there is really no consistent trend for proponents of increased safety to rely on.

These stats all come together to say that boxing likely won’t face much outside pressure to reshape its rules in the near future and so the onus for change is largely on boxing organizations. While there are few precedents on cases related to injuries sustained in boxing, two examples highlight the potential for future issues to arise. In 2017, the State of New York agreed to pay out $22 million to Magomed Abdusalamov, who suffered severe brain damage in the ring four years prior and was subject to less-than-adequate post-fight care that resulted in a loss of walking and speaking ability. Earlier this year, former boxer, Daniel Franco, sued his agency Roc Nation Sports for severe brain damage he sustained after being pressured into three fights despite concerns of his health and readiness. While the case is still ongoing, the lawsuit itself represents the culpability involved in boxing and another ruling in favor of the boxers would foreshadow additional player-safety suits in the future.

It is wholly possible that given the differences between the way professional football and professional boxing are structured, boxing will never face the sort of pressure that the NFL was forced to confront. Yet, as boxing-related brain trauma and deaths pile up, one has to wonder just where the organizations or their fans draw the line. The NFL clearly handled the CTE research poorly and continues to pay a steep price for doing so. If the sport of boxing and its administration is paying attention, any legal settlements and unfavorable media associated with future injuries far outweigh the cost of preemptive safety measures and additional research. It is easy to express regret and give the routine “thoughts & prayers,” but unless those involved at all levels of boxing demand change, Patrick Day’s life, and undoubtedly many others, will have been in vain. Either way, the decision is in boxing’s corner.