Villanova Sports Law Blog
The NFL Injury Reduction Plan Leaves Players Unprotected
By Daphne Ghirardi
After settling a billion-dollar lawsuit with former players who accused the league of covering up the risk of long-term brain injuries, all eyes were on the NFL. Now that they were forced to acknowledge the concussion epidemic, how would they respond? After a 16 percent increase in concussions during the 2017 season, the NFL developed an Injury Reduction Plan to drive behavioral changes and reduce the amount of concussions.  The Injury Reduction Plan is a three-pronged approach focused on preseason practices, safer helmets, and rule changes. 
In order to reduce concussions that occur during the preseason, the NFL is sharing information across the league to educate teams, stimulate change, and enhance player safety.  Teams have been asked to share information regarding preseason drills, player position, and injury data.  Over time this will allow the league to gather information about drills that are dangerous to players and eliminate them from preseason practices. The NFL and NFLPA collectively appoint biomechanical engineers each year to perform laboratory testing on helmets and to evaluate which helmets best reduce head impact severity.  After laboratory testing, the approved helmets are shared with players, equipment managers, and club medical staff to help make informed equipment choices. 
The biggest focus of the Injury Prevention Plan is the enforcement of rule changes aimed at eliminating potentially dangerous behavior that could lead to concussions.  The Competition Committee, along with more than a dozen NFL health and safety committees and the NFLPA, review injury data and videos after each season to see how injuries occur.  Their analysis covers all injuries impacting players and considers how protocols and rule changes can improve player safety to evolve the game. 
Although the NFL acknowledges its concussion problem and has developed strategies to reduce the risk of concussions, its players are still largely unprotected. Despite the greater risk of catastrophic injury in football compared with any other major league sport, guarantees are rare in NFL contracts. The current CBA does not prohibit NFL players from receiving a fully-guaranteed contract, revealing that unguaranteed contracts are a structural preference for management coming at the expense of labor.  Unlike the other major sports leagues, the NFL has a hard salary cap that makes it difficult for teams to sign players to a fully guaranteed contract. Moreover, NFL teams have the largest rosters out of the major leagues, in large part because depth is required at each position to accommodate for inevitable injuries. This makes it nearly impossible to stay under the salary cap with guaranteed contracts. An injured player with a fully-guaranteed contract creates dead money against the cap and makes replacement by a new, healthy player prohibitive. Because the hard cap in the NFL allows the league to maintain a competitive balance among large and small market teams, it is unlikely that the league would remove or loosen the cap in order to accommodate guaranteed contracts.
Although it is rare for players to receive a fully guaranteed contract, it is not impossible. Last year, Kirk Cousins signed a historic deal with the Minnesota Vikings. The veteran quarterback received a three-year, $84 million, fully-guaranteed contract.  Other players have taken note of Cousins new deal and have made it clear that there will be a push for more guaranteed money going forward. With the current CBA set to expire in 2020, it is likely that fully-guaranteed contracts will likely be a major point of contention during negotiations.
 Health & Safety. (2019). Retrieved from https://operations.nfl.com/football-ops/nfl-ops-honoring-the-game/health-safety/
 Frank, V. (2018). NFL Players Call For Guaranteed Contracts As Potential Work Stoppage Looms. Retrieved from:https://www.forbes.com/sites/vincentfrank/2018/07/05/nfl-players-call-for-guaranteed-contracts-as-potential-work-stoppage-looms/#625f53532b76
 Brooks, B. (2019). Fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL? Five players I’d lock up. Retrieved from: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000001018654/article/fully-guaranteed-contracts-in-the-nfl-five-players-id-lock-up