Chiefs players roasting their team owner this week is the latest sign of NFL players flexing newfound power

INDIANAPOLIS — Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt stood in a semi-circle of reporters on Wednesday, pressed over a somewhat surprising development earlier in the day. A strong contingent of his players, who will soon be slipping on yet another a Super Bowl ring — the third in five years for some of them — had some notes to share with both their team owner and the outside world about the inner workings of the franchise.

Their coach, Andy Reid? He landed an A+ rating amongst a strong contingent of Chiefs players who took part in the second annual NFL Players Association survey, which was released on Wednesday. Reid's grade was the best in the league amongst coaches, according to the union's data set.

And that’s where the organizational flowers ran out.

In 10 other categories, the back-to-back Super Bowl champion franchise didn’t get a single rating from their own players higher than a C+. Most shockingly, they landed two Ds (Training Room and Team Travel), one D+ (Treatment of Families), three Fs (Nutritionist/Dietician, Locker Room, and Training Staff) — and one absolute anchor-dragging F- … for their owner, Clark Hunt.

As NFLPA President J.C. Tretter framed it on Wednesday: “A lot of that was, I would say, frustration from the guys on promises that haven’t been kept as they’ve put a bunch of success on the field. Not this past year, [but] the year before, the team promised them a brand new locker room. [They were told] they were going to renovate it. They go on to win the Super Bowl, they come back for offseason — same locker room, but with chairs [instead of stools].

“They kind of said ‘What’s the deal?’ And [they were told] ‘Well, you guys went far in the playoffs. We didn’t have time to do it, so we didn’t.’ … I think you’ll see that frustration in the survey responses, where they feel like they’ve been promised change and they’re not actually receiving the change as they’ve putting out Super Bowl after Super Bowl.”

Regardless of what critics might say of the report card and how it does or doesn't correlate to on-field performance, everyone should understand one thing this represents: This is clearly an illustration of the Chiefs players speaking directly to their ownership, using a tool that actually gives them the freedom to say send a message without the worry of retribution. And that message is pretty clear. Despite being one of the best teams on the field for a number of years — operating with the league's best head coach and best quarterback for the last six years — they're not big fans of how a large portion of the actual workplace environment is functioning.

That’s how you get the Chiefs workplace going from an overall league ranking of 29th in 2022 to 31st in 2023 — with one F grade in eight categories during the 2022 season to four (four!) in 11 categories during the 2023 season. All of this in the midst of back-to-back Super Bowls, no less. Something which begs the question … what would these grades look like if the Chiefs weren’t at least experiencing the highs of being in the midst of a dynastic period?

That critical feedback is how you got to a remarkable scene on Wednesday, which was basically unheard of in the NFL prior to just a few years ago. A picture of Hunt being prodded by reporters to actually answer for what led to players scoring him an F- (and a combined 4.9/10 rating) in response to a question about his “willingness to invest in the facilities.”

Clark was asked Wednesday: Did you tell the players that they would get a renovated locker room?

“Well we did completely renovate the locker room here in the stadium a couple of years ago, so I’m not sure which locker room they’re referring to,” Hunt said.

Pressed about why the Chiefs continued to get low report card rankings and criticim over the facilities, Hunt replied, “I mentioned that the practice facility is something that we’re going to continue to think about. It’s coming up on 20 years [old]. We certainly in a lot of ways have outgrown it. We recognize that we have a need to expand it and modernize it.”

Before the NFLPA created these report cards, that’s not an interaction you would see very often, if at all, between an NFL owner and reporters. Largely because there was never an actual data set and grades to point to, driven by survey of players that allowed them to speak freely about how they felt about a team. Instead, what typically occurred for decades was a slow-drip cycle of players complaining to reporters about their perception that ownership was pinching pennies in some respect and cutting corners, or a free agent changing teams would remark about how much better or worse their new surroundings were. Almost always, nothing changed, other than a hardened long-term perception in the media about which teams or owners were historically “cheap” when it came to the working environment inside their buildings.

That’s how the Cincinnati Bengals and Arizona Cardinals and San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers got a reputation in the 1990s and 2000s that carried over into free agency. And it’s how prior to their move to Las Vegas, the Raiders were known across the league as a franchise that was lagging horribly behind everyone else when it came to technological advances in scouting and analytics. But those reputations took years and sometimes even decades to become rooted in the public consciousness.

Now? In some respects, it has only taken two years and two surveys for everyone to look at the Chiefs and wonder what the heck is going on inside a franchise that seems to be winning everywhere but inside their own workplace culture. And you can bet one year from now, when the next survey rolls out, there is going to be a piercing spotlight on whether or not the Chiefs have managed to clean some of these things up.

Same as there was on the Jacksonville Jaguars this week, after the team had a practice facility rat infestation outed in the survey one year ago. Well, what a difference one year and one new practice facility makes. The Jaguars went from ranking 28th overall during the 2022 season to 5th overall in 2023, largely thanks to a report card that had As and Bs in 10 of the 11 categories polled. That still didn't stop Jacksonville's players from shading the franchise on treatment of families, which landed a D- and 24th overall ranking in this year's report card.

What’s remarkable about all of this is that it illustrates the willingness of players speaking their mind and flexing their power when given a protected opportunity to do so. The NFLPA’s poll gives them a chance to pull the curtain back on the inner culture of franchises — letting both the public and other NFL players know what the true temperature is inside the building. And it absolutely matters to owners. Because while the union has stressed repeatedly that the report card isn’t meant to be a “shaming” tool, you can be sure that Hunt wasn’t thrilled to be answering for an F- on Wednesday. Nor was the new Commanders regime likely happy to see that for the second straight year, they can hang the banner of being ranked the league’s worst overall workplace environment for players.

In some ways, it’s appropriate that this report card comes out at the league’s annual combine, which is experiencing an ongoing renaissance of players refusing to take cognitive tests that repeatedly get leaked, and a growing number of elite players that refuse to go through a gauntlet of drills that the NFL has built a tentpole event around. That’s why you won’t see the top three quarterbacks perform this week, including USC’s Caleb Williams, LSU’s Jayden Daniels and UNC’s Drake Maye, nor the top two wideouts in Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. and LSU’s Malik Nabers. That’s five players who could realistically be the first five players drafted in April. And none of them will be putting on a show for NFL Network in Indianapolis, choosing instead to shift their work to pro days or personal workouts.

Much like the NFLPA’s player poll, that’s something that you wouldn’t have seen a decade ago — at least not without a significant red-faced tantrum from coaches and personnel people that usually ended with anonymous shots at the character of the athletes who were skipping the event. But this week? Complaints have been far more mellow about skipped drills and almost nonexistent about cognitive tests being punted.

More than ever, it feels like there’s some change afoot in the league when it comes to players pressing back against league norms. Voices are being used. Workouts are being refused. And all the while, the NFL is continuing to grapple with a power structure that is no longer free of questions from the players who reside within it.

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