What NFL players aren't supposed to do in the offseason

ByMarc Raimondi ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 19, 2024

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS All-Pro tight end George Kittle was ringside at WrestleMania 39, and he wasn't a passive spectator. Kittle began taunting WWE villain The Miz during his match against former NFL punter and current ESPN personality Pat McAfee.

The Miz shoved Kittle, who hopped over a barricade, ran at the 6-foot-2, 221-pound heel and clotheslined him. Kittle then positioned The Miz so McAfee could land a move from the top rope.

"Hope you had fun," 49ers general manager John Lynch later texted, according to Kittle. "Don't do that again."

Kittle said he didn't inform the team he would be getting physical during the WWE match in April 2023. His philosophy was "just don't get hurt, and we won't have any problems with anything."

That's the tightrope NFL players will be walking as they scatter for their offseason before training camp in late July. The standard NFL contract states guarantees could be voided if players are injured participating in activities with a significant risk of injury, and first-round picks often have specific endeavors listed. But teams can't monitor players 24/7, and history suggests incidents -- and injuries -- are inevitable.

"All the dangerous things," Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said when asked what he'd like his players to avoid. "Things where they get hurt, you don't want them to do."

But "dangerous" is a relative term. Roster Management System scanned several contracts, and they all include prohibitions on things such as hang gliding, rock climbing and skiing. But there were some surprises.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes would void guarantees in his contract if he got hurt playing basketball, among other activities.

"When I was in Kansas City, basketball was the thing that you couldn't do," New Orleans Saints safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "I think somebody took a video of [Mahomes] playing basketball, and that's how that started, because then they didn't want anybody playing basketball."

Several contracts list basketball, although many players aren't shy about hooping in public. Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons, Houston Texans QB C.J. Stroud, Los Angeles Rams receiver Puka Nacua and Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman all participated in the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game in February. And Miami Dolphins star receiver Tyreek Hill recently posted a video of him dunking while playing with the Harlem Globetrotters.

"If it's basketball against guys that look like me, I'm good with it," Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski said with a laugh. "But the guys, they always need to be careful about whatever they're doing off the field.

"I'm like a mother hen. I just want everybody to be safe. I'd love to keep everybody locked in Berea [Ohio] in Bubble Wrap for the entire offseason."

NACUA INTERCEPTED AN outlet pass near half court, dribbled up the left wing, flew by a defender and threw down a vicious, one-handed dunk. It was one of several aggressive moves by Nacua during the NBA celebrity game as he finished with 16 points, four assists and four rebounds.

Nacua is an avid basketball player, and there's nothing in his contract to specifically prohibit the former fifth-round pick from playing. Stroud, who was a first-round pick, would be in default if he got injured playing basketball, but he got clearance to play in the NBA celebrity game, according to a team source.

It's unknown if Hill received permission to play with the Globetrotters.

"We did get some good runs in the offseason, but it's definitely winding down, especially since we got back out here," Nacua said recently during OTAs. "I'm like, 'My feet can't take that much burden.'

"I'd say basketball would be the one thing that I've advised myself to stop doing [during the season]. It's like, man, we do so much running and cutting already, by the time I get there to Friday, I'm like, I don't know if I can even do a layup right now. I'm like, my hips and my knees hurt so bad. And changing surfaces has honestly been one of the things I've noticed as well. [Basketball courts] don't have soft grass."

Cleveland Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett was a high school letterman in basketball and grew up playing against his older brother, Sean Williams, who was a first-round pick of the New Jersey Nets in 2007.

But after signing what was the richest contract extension for a non-quarterback in 2021, Garrett "retired" from playing pickup basketball, according to Stefanski.

"It's for the better now," Garrett said. "I'm still able to go to the gym and shoot, and every now and then get a little 2-on-2, 3-on-3 with the boys.

"But it's definitely the smarter approach not to be with a random person who has nothing to lose. In those instances, those are unknown variables that I'm playing around with that I just don't need to for the sake of the season or my career."

Garrett played in the 2022 NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, and although he was still feeling sore from the bumps and bruises of the season, he said he'd like to do that again.

"It definitely gives me that tingly feeling when I see guys in our sport hooping," he said. "I can't get rid of that love."

While Stefanski retired Garrett from pickup games, some coaches have different philosophies. Atlanta Falcons assistant head coach Jerry Gray encourages players in the secondary to play hoops. Several Falcons players, including cornerbacks Clark Phillips III and Dee Alford and safety DeMarcco Hellams, go to a local gym in Flowery Branch, Georgia, near the team's facility to play pickup games during the offseason.

"That's the best thing for a defensive back," Gray said. "If you can cut in tight spaces, you can play corner. ... You learn how to play with four other guys. You learn how to keep vision on your man while you're looking at the backboard. You start learning how to rebound.

"All of those things start helping you intercept the football, because now you're not just focused on one guy. In basketball, you're actually covering everyone around you."

Falcons All-Pro safety Jessie Bates III said he hasn't gotten the invite to play with his secondary mates, because "they might be scared or something." Bates added he probably has "the best jumper on the team," and he does hit the court during the offseason with one of his best friends, Malik Williams, who played last year with the Toronto Raptors.

"I'm a three-sport athlete, so I try to play softball a little bit, try to go play basketball, because those things I think translate into the game of football," said Bates, whose contract does not prohibit basketball. "So yeah, I'm a hooper."

NYHEIM HINES WAS sitting on a jet ski on July 2, 2023, when his watercraft was hit by another. The running back tore his left ACL and MCL, and his season with the Buffalo Bills was over before it started.

The Bills put Hines on the non-football injury (NFI) list, meaning they were not required to pay him for the entire season. Buffalo had previously renegotiated a two-year, $9 million contract with Hines.

Ultimately, Hines and the team came to an agreement. According to Spotrac, Buffalo paid Hines $3.98 million in 2023. But the team released him on March 6, and he signed with the Cleveland Browns a week later.

"[The accident is] a terrible look, and that's been real hard," Hines told The Athletic in November. "If I was doing jumps or being stupid, I wouldn't even be really upset, but it's the fact that I literally wasn't even riding the jet ski. I was just getting gas."

Riding a jet ski is one of the more common prohibited activities in contracts. Riding all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) is another.

Former Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Malik McDowell, the team's second-round pick in 2017, sustained a concussion in July 2017 in an ATV accident. He never played a down for the Seahawks because of the injury and the team sued, attempting to recoup almost $800,000 of his signing bonus. An arbitrator ruled McDowell forfeited that money by violating the standard language in his contract.

Former New York Giants safety Xavier McKinney, who's now with the Green Bay Packers, also sustained an injury riding an ATV. During the Giants' bye week last season, McKinney went to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and he had to undergo surgery with pins being placed in his left hand. The former Giants captain and defensive signal-caller missed seven games.

Other high-profile instances of injuries occurring during offseason activities include:

  • Retired Colts quarterback Andrew Luck admitted two years after the fact that he aggravated his throwing shoulder injury in a 2016 Colorado snowboarding accident.
  • In 2015, then-Giants linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul needed his right index finger amputated following a Fourth of July fireworks accident at his home.
  • Former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger broke his jaw and nose in a 2006 motorcycle crashin which he was not wearing a helmet.

It's no surprise that snowboarding, motorcycle riding and exploding fireworks are included among prohibited activities in many contracts.

"Pretty much everything off the field [is off limits]," Giants defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence said. "I like to play video games, so ..."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS HEAD coach Kevin O'Connell was a quarterback for the New York Jets in 2010 when he got married to his then-fiancée, Leah. O'Connell attempted to appropriate the prohibited offseason activities language in his contract for his own purposes.

"I tried to use that clause to get out of dancing at my own wedding," O'Connell said with a laugh. "It didn't necessarily work, and I was able to make it through without any injury."

On a more serious note, O'Connell said there has to be a discussion between coaches and players about what they should and should not be doing in the offseason.

"I think you have to [talk about it], just because there's been some examples of guys maybe getting an injury, and sometimes it's taking part in one of those reckless activities," he said. "Sometimes it's not.

"But that whole non-football injury world, that NFI world, it's the last thing you want to see as a coach because you know how impactful this game is already on guys' bodies."

Some coaches, like theCincinnati Bengals' Zac Taylor, are in the camp of wanting to trust players to make the right decisions without having to feel like a babysitter.

"You can't just live in fear all the time if someone's going to get hurt or something," he said. "So, you got to go live your life and be healthy for us. ... I like to take players that are smart enough to know which things they should and shouldn't do."

Added Arizona Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon: "I don't outline each guy's contract and what they can and what they can't do. But they know that their job as an Arizona Cardinal is to maximize themselves, and anything that takes away from maximizing themselves as a football player is not putting the team ahead of themselves."

Other coaches have specific things they'd like their players to avoid. Tennessee Titans coach Brian Callahan said he'd prefer his players "stay off of mountains."

There are front-office executives, per sources, who have concerns about what the future looks like with flag football, which has been the centerpiece of the Pro Bowl Games the past two years.

In 2028, the sport will make its debut in the Olympic Games, which will be hosted in Los Angeles. NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent said there is a likelihood of NFL players competing.

But even flag football is not without risk. Former Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith suffered a broken left forearm while playing flag football in 2010.

Days after the injury, Smith said: "I won't do it again. But I was just having fun, playing with some guys." And that's what Kittle was doing at WrestleMania: having fun.

Kittle is a massive pro wrestling fan and said he would have considered doing something with WWE again this year had he not had core muscle surgery this offseason. Instead, recently retired Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce and his offensive line mate Lane Johnson did a run-in at WrestleMania in Philadelphia.

Kittle said when it comes to wrestling, he'd probably end up asking for forgiveness rather than permission. But if he did get injured while wrestling, he would be at risk of voiding his $100,000 workout bonus.

"I honestly am one of probably the safest guys," Kittle said. "I don't do anything.

"I might occasionally be in a wrestling ring, but I'm not doing too much. I'm very aware football is everything, and so I don't even try to go skiing and stuff like that. That's not even on my mind."

But they are in his contract, and his general manager is watching.

Additional reporting by Todd Archer, Sarah Barshop, DJ Bien-Aime, Brady Henderson, Stephen Holder, Daniel Oyefusi, Jordan Raanan, Michael Rothstein, Katherine Terrell and Nick Wagoner.

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