NFL Votes to Require Players to Wear Full Pads in 2013

Today, NFL owners voted to require players to wear thigh and knee pads in games beginning in 2013.  The decision was reportedly made to bolster NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s safety initiative. 

Under the 2011 NFL Rulebook, players were not required to wear thigh and knee pads during games.  Rather, in the 2011 Rulebook, the NFL recommended that players wear hip, thigh and knee pads.  The Rulebook states that wearing these pads will “. . . reasonably avoid the risk of injury.”  Additionally, the 2011 Rulebook provided that the decision to wear pads is left to the player, unless individual team policy states otherwise.  Thus, in interpreting the recommendation made in the 2011 NFL Rulebook, it appears that teams could individually require players to wear full-pads during games.

Reports indicate that the NFLPA will challenge the NFL owners’ decision to require thigh and knee pads beginning in 2013.  The NFLPA will challenge this measure by filing a grievance with an arbitrator.  In its grievance, the NFLPA will likely assert that requiring players to wear thigh and knee pads is an issue related to working conditions.  A collective bargaining agreement is the document that outlines the terms of the working conditions between an employer and employee.  Thus, the NFLPA in its grievance will argue that any changes related to the types of pads an NFL player is required to wear during games should have been negotiated into the new collective bargaining agreement.

This argument which will likely be raised by the NFLPA poses a serious issue for the NFL and the arbitrator which will hear the case.  As noted above, the NFL and NFLPA entered into a new collective bargaining agreement in August 2011.  The new collective bargaining agreement has a contractual duration of ten years.  As such, if the NFLPA’s argument is upheld, the parties will not be able to negotiate the wearing of full-pads by players until 2020.

From the NFL’s perspective, this is clearly problematic.  Currently, the NFL is a defendant to numerous suits filed by thousands of former players resulting from concussions sustained by them during the course of their NFL careers.  A large measure of these lawsuits allege that the NFL did not take proper precautions to protect players from danger on the field and likewise, did not educate them fully of the risks of playing football.  Here, it is likely that the NFL fears that similar lawsuits could arise in the future, if it does not take action now to ensure that players are fully protecting their bodies by wearing thigh and knee pads.

Arguably, this is a proposal that the NFLPA should be on board with.  The NFLPA states that its mission, in part, is to “. . . confirm our willingness to do whatever is necessary for the betterment of our membership.”  Here, certain members of that membership–in particular, running backs and wide receivers–argue that playing with full-pads slows them down, and as such, limits them from performing on the field to the best of their ability.  Although the NFLPA argues that the NFL has not presented it with a study showing that players sustain less injuries when playing in full-pads, it is not hard to imagine that more padding on a player equates to less injuries sustained by said player.  Thus, in this instance, the NFLPA must determine whether it is bettering its membership by allowing several of its members to gain more speed, while risking injury to all of its members.

Overall, given the current climate wherein thousands of former NFL players have sued the NFL for injuries they allegedly sustained while playing the game, the NFLPA should table its grievance, as an arbitrator will likely find in favor of the rule proposal adopted by NFL owners.

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