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The NFLPA explains how their team report cards are changing football

On March 1st the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) released its first “Team Report Cards,” which graded teams in a variety of areas from player health, facility quality, as well as how families are treated by the organization. It was a unique opportunity for fans to learn about substandard levels of care in some NFL teams, while also shining a light on the lack of universal standards across the league.

JC Tretter played nine years in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns, now he serves as President of the NFLPA. SB spoke to Tretter about the team report cards, what the union is learning so far, and how the league should change moving forward.

The most eye-catching headlines following the team report cards were shocking details nobody would expect out of any professional sports team, let alone the NFL. The Jaguars had a rat infestation, the Cardinals made their players pay for team cafeteria food, and the wife of a Bengals player was force to nurse her baby on the floor of a public restroom because there was nowhere else to go.

As shocking as these all were, Tretter explained that a lot of players had no idea that this wasn’t common practice. For the most part players don’t discuss what’s happening outside their own organization, because the assumption was that everyone had the same standards — but nothing could be further from the truth.

“The players don’t talk amongst themselves until somebody gives them the cover to share their issues,” Tretter says, noting that some players were floored upon learning that some NFL teams have as many as six physical therapists on staff — while others only have one. Sometimes this meager staff is shared between teams across sports if an owner of an NFL team also has stakes in soccer, hockey or basketball.

“Most of these guys that are coming from Power 5 Schools are taking a downgrade to come to the NFL in their facilities. They’re coming from better facilities at their college campuses.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow if you’re an NFL fan seeing ticket and concession prices swell every year. The idea that professionals in a multi-billion-dollar league are receiving worse care than they did as students is abhorrent, and that’s something the NFLPA is trying to shine a light on.

Tretter explains that while the NFLPA is currently three years into a 10-year collective bargaining agreement which expires in 2030, that doesn’t mean the union plans to sit on its hands until they’re back at the bargaining table.

“There are ways to build leverage and create change in between CBAs. I think this is one of the ideas we came up with is a way to put some pressure on teams to change the day-to-day lives of the workers,” Tretter says. “Until you point out where the problem is, you can’t really expect to change the problems.” He adds that the 2023 report cards were more of a proof of concept, and that these grades will continue into the future. Tretter believes the Year 2 reports will be even more powerful, as they will offer an insight on which teams are actively trying to make improvements for their players — and who is happy to maintain the status quo of substandard care.

Less than a month into the release of the reports we’re already seeing an impact. The Cardinals removed their requirement for players to purchase their own food at team facilities, while controversial Ravens strength coach Steve Saunders, who received an “F-” in the report card, was fired shortly before the NFLPA published the grades.

“Some people can plead ignorance. It’s probably not ignorance, it’s something else, but they can sure claim ignorance. Next year, they won’t have that ability.” Tretter says. “If it’s still a problem next year then it becomes a choice.”

It’s the NFLPA’s belief that this can lead to tremendous upward pressure, especially when it comes to free agents choosing teams, a talent’s willingness to re-sign, or how favorably agents will look upon certain organizations. Tretter adds that “a double-digit number of teams” contacted the NFLPA following the report cards, not to dispute their grade, but asking for details on how they can improve. That was the driving force behind all of this.

Typically in labor movements we see a tendency for older, more senior employees to take an active role, while younger employees choose not to engage. When it comes to the player reports cards this wasn’t the case. Tretter says the NFLPA saw an equal demographic split among the 1,300 player respondents. It shows that those just entering the league are equally invested in seeing their workplace improve as older players on the back end of their careers.

Tretter believes these young players are critical to the process, because their recent jumps from top NCAA programs to the NFL gives them a better insight on how different the standards are between college and pro football in the modern era. NCAA locker rooms, particularly at Power 5 schools, have moved lightyears ahead in recent years compared to those current NFL players had in school as recently as six or seven years ago.

Even if you’re a fan who doesn’t necessarily care about the state of your team’s locker room, know that the report card is already having an impact on you team’s ability to attract free agents. Tretter says it’s not necessarily just about where players choose to sign, but importantly how much they’ll play for. Ahead of the Cardinals’ change to their meal policy he noted that in speaking with agents, they indicated that they would ask the Cardinals to pay more to their clients because of the food program, where they might ask less from the Minnesota Vikings (who received the highest grade in the report card). Balancing the salary cap and fielding the best team now has a direct correlation to an owner’s willingness to take care of their players.

This is only the beginning for the NFLPA. Tretter notes that they have more plans to keep NFL franchises accountable for how they treat players, but notes that some of this action is being kept quiet by design. “Leaving it unspoken or a little bit in the shadows helps us too,” Tretter adds. “Everything is on the table.”

Visibility is the first step to enact change. The NFL team report cards represent one of the most notable player actions outside of CBA negotiations in terms of informing the public where teams stand when it comes to player and family care.

Moving forward, teams will no longer be able to claim they weren’t aware of any problems. Players, agents and the NFLPA are all watching this process evolve, now it’s on the owners to pony up and take care of their athletes.

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