The NFL Players Association has officially filed a complaint against the New England Patriots for their reported "benching" of cornerback Malcolm Butler during voluntary OTAs earlier this month.
To recap: Butler's flight from Atlanta to Boston was cancelled due to bad weather and he subsequently reported late to the team. As a result, he did not participate in the first six OTA practice sessions. He did however still have access to the film and weight rooms.
Without Butler's consent, the Players Association is now filing a complaint against the Patriots for their handling of the situation. According to the NFLPA, it would have been against Article 21, Section 5, Paragraph (a) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This paragraph states the following about voluntary sessions:
No club official may indicate to a player that such individual workouts are not voluntary, or that a player's failure to participate in such workouts will result in the player's failure to make the Club (or that a player's failure to participate in a workout program or classroom instruction will result in the player's failure to make the Club or result in any other adverse consequences affecting his working conditions).
This is where things might get tricky for the NFLPA, though, because of the following reasons and how they are related to the paragraph above (relations in italics):
1) Butler was still allowed to work out
As noted above, even though the second year cornerback did not partake in on-field practice sessions, he still had access to the film and weight rooms. The argument can therefore be made, that his absence during practices did not affect his working conditions. You could even go a step further and say that him being able to watch film while others worked on drills actually helped Butler to better grasp the defense – as can be seen, the argument goes both ways.
2) Butler was still paid
Since OTAs are voluntary, Butler missing team drills was not detrimental to his finances. Does this qualify as an adverse consequence of being held out of practice sessions? No. After all, the team did not fine him financially for reporting late.
3) Butler will still make the team
The quoted paragraph talks about non-participation resulting in a player's failure to make the club as a violation. However, Butler is close to a sure-fire candidate to make the Patriots' 53-man roster. As soon as he was back on the practice fields (the last week of OTA practices and all of minicamp), he was part of what looks like the Patriots' first team defense and was charged with covering one of the better receivers in the league, Julian Edelman.
What happens next? The Players Association as well as a representative from the league can request material from the Patriots – practice video, key card access data, etc. – to find out whether Butler missing OTA practices was a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement or not. Should they conclude that the team did indeed violate Article 21 of the CBA, the case will be brought before an impartial arbitrator.
Should the team be found guilty, the fines for head coach and team range from nothing (should they be found to have interpreted the rules "in good faith", whatever that means) up to $100,000 for the coach and $250,000 for the franchise (in case it is a first-time violation, which it would be in the Patriots' case). The team's next scheduled week of OTAs might also get cancelled.
To make things clear: the NFLPA was right to file a complaint. They have to make sure their clients – the players – are not put at a disadvantage by the clubs. However, due to the reasons above plus the fact that the filing happened without Butler's consent, it seems as if the Patriots do not have much to worry about.
However, we are talking about the NFL – we should not be surprised about anything, especially concerning the Patriots.