Let's please let 'voluntary' mean voluntary

PHILADELPHIA -- It's an ugly, undignified rite of NFL spring, this taking of attendance at voluntary workouts, and it really needs to stop.

Last week, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin expressed his frustration over the absence of star wide receiver Hakeem Nicks from the team's voluntary OTAs. Coughlin said Nicks had told him he'd bet there and hadn't called to explain why he wasn't. Coughlin said he understood these are the rules, but made it clear he doesn't feel the coach has to like it.

Down here in Philadelphia, new cornerback Cary Williams missed a big chunk of the voluntary offseason program for a variety of reasons. He got married. His daughter had a dance recital. He had to pick out sconces for his new house. The reasons for his absence subjected Williams to a high level of ridicule from Eagles fans who believed he should be working out with and getting to know his new teammates and coaches. Williams was perplexed by the fuss.

"I mean ... fans ... I love you, but jeez," Williams said after Tuesday's mandatory minicamp practice. "If I had three kids with three different women, and if I was a womanizer, you all would be reporting that. But now I'm a guy who wants to see his little girl's recital and I'm a bad guy? Come on."

Look, I know I'm not an NFL coach or an NFL fan, but to me Williams sounds like the voice of reason and Coughlin sounds like the cranky old man who wants everybody off his lawn. Words have meaning, and the word "voluntary" means of one's own will and without outside interference. Translated for purposes of this discussion, that means that neither Nicks nor Williams nor any other player in the league has to attend voluntary OTAs or tell his coach, teammates or anyone on the planet why he didn't. This is their right as human beings and as NFL players, and no amount of conventional meathead wisdom changes that. None.

The fact that almost everyone else on the team is there practicing doesn't change it. The fact that they make a lot of money and play a game for a living doesn't change it. The fact that coaches and fans prefer players who go above and beyond what's required of them doesn't change it. Nothing does. Every single defense of Coughlin's rant about Nicks is unjustified. Every single bit of scorn directed at Williams for staying home is just another example of the NFL establishment insisting on treating the players like something less than human beings. And it needs to stop.

People constantly ask what the players actually got in the most recent collective bargaining negotiations. The salary cap hasn't gone up, and big contracts for veterans aren't any easier to come by than they were in the old system. A rookie salary cap depresses the earning potential of the highest draft picks, and the discipline process is still the domain of the commissioner, with the players in possession of little recourse. But a big part of the answer to "what did the players get?" is a reduction in the amount of work required of them in the offseason -- more time to heal and rest and live their lives outside of football, which is their workplace. The players' union believed this to be a quality-of-life issue that would affect the entirety of its membership, whereas an increased say in discipline matters would have affected only the few who get into trouble. The players wanted this and got it in exchange for their own concessions, and they have every right to take advantage of it without worrying what their fans or their coaches think.

Coughlin is out of line and should be told by the league (or at least the NFLPA) to cut it out. Eagles coach Chip Kelly has been careful not to say anything that might be construed as critical of players who stayed away from voluntary work, and that's smart. But those who made fun of Williams for going to his daughter's dance recital are out of line as well. Kudos to him for coming out Tuesday and asking this football-crazed world where exactly the emperor's clothes are in all of this. Kudos for him for wanting to be a present father and husband. He didn't go with his former Ravens teammates to the White House on Wednesday, because the Eagles' practice that day was mandatory. He understands the difference between what's required of him and what's simply available to him, and more importantly he understands the importance of having some level of sane balance in his life.

These guys aren't just characters who appear on a weekly TV show on Sundays in the fall. They're human beings. The job they do is brutally tough, exhausting, even crippling, and they do it for our enjoyment. They subject their bodies to pain and exhaustion and breakage from late July through December. And while yes, they are well compensated for that effort, they are putting it forth under an agreement that specifically allows them to live their lives the way they want to live them away from the football field in May and June. They should be allowed to do so without their bosses or their fans making them feel as though they're not living up to their end of the bargain.