Sorry, Malcolm, but this is bigger than you. Much bigger.
That's the message the NFLPA, the players' union, sent to Patriots Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler when it recently filed a grievance against the Patriots on his behalf ... against his wishes.
According to a report from Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Butler was banned from participating in the team's spring OTAs (organized team activities) for nearly three weeks after he showed up late to the first OTA on May 26 as a result of a weather-related canceled flight the night before.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick is notorious for benching or sending players home if they are late to work, as guys like Adalius Thomas, Darrelle Revis and Jonas Gray can attest. While one can question how productive that form of punishment is since it appears to hurt the team as much as it hurts the individual player, there is a much bigger problem with Belichick's move as it relates to Butler: The OTAs are voluntary.
It is one thing to punish players in a way a coach deems fit when they miss or are late for something mandatory, but this is a different story. Whether or not the punishment fit the crime -- especially considering Butler called the Patriots as soon as his flight had been canceled -- is beside the point. This was a step too far.
That's why even though Butler has been mum on the subject and reportedly doesn't want to be a part of any grievance against his employer, the NFLPA really doesn't have any choice in the matter. The union collectively bargained the current CBA with the NFL for months in order to reach the agreement signed in 2011. All of the things the union didn't get (independent third-party appeals, removal of the franchise tag, greater piece of the financial pie, etc.) are pointed out so often that it must fight when a right they did bargain for -- such as less stringent offseason schedules -- is infringed upon.
As mentioned, the wisdom of the Pats' decision to punish Butler in the first place is questionable. Perhaps the move was meant to humble Butler after an offseason of being feted as the conquering hero everywhere he went. Or maybe it was just a loud and clear message that last year is over and it is time to turn the page. They likely accomplished both of those presumed goals, although taking away valuable reps from Butler, a projected starter, and likely losing offseason workouts next year hardly seem worth it.
For the NFLPA's part, there is often an inherent dilemma as to what is truly worth fighting for. How much negotiating capital should be exhausted trying to get rid of the franchise tag given that it only directly affects a handful of players each year? As recently touched on by NFL executive Troy Vincent, how much time and money should be spent on lawyers trying to defend players who have committed crimes, like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy?
It's not an easy question to answer, but the reality is this: If the NFLPA doesn't fight the NFL when collectively bargained rights are violated, who is going to?
That's especially true in Butler's situation. He is only a year removed from being an undrafted free agent out of West Alabama. The last thing he wants to do is rock the boat in New England.
Fortunately, that's what the NFLPA is for. When a player like Butler may decline to enforce his rights under the CBA, the NFLPA must step in and argue on his behalf. Just like the NFL vigorously defends things it has negotiated, like commissioner Roger Goodell's ability to be the officer in Tom Brady's appeal hearing, the NFLPA must do the same.
Players negotiated hard to have more freedom in the offseason so they could go back to school, start a business or even just relax. The last thing they are going to do is allow the NFL to take that away.