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Tara Sullivan

NFL may have a fight on its hands with players regarding safety amid pandemic

NFLPA president JC Tretter of the Browns said the union's "most important job is keep our players safe and alive."
NFLPA president JC Tretter of the Browns said the union's "most important job is keep our players safe and alive."David Richard/Associated Press

The public face of the NFL rarely strays from its business-as-usual countenance, so there shouldn’t be any real surprise over the “What, me worry?” look in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Sure, there is plenty of activity beneath the league’s surface, plans and procedures for how best to play while COVID-19 rages. But the bottom-line foundation remains steadfast.

The show must go on.

But what the NFL wants so badly to happen versus what players say they need to feel safe in order to make it happen are viewpoints that remain miles apart. And they are headed for a collision. If you don’t think the coming crash is going to get ugly, I refer you to Baseball 2020.

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If the NFL really believes it is immune to the sniping and heated rhetoric that took over baseball’s negotiations, it would be wise to recall how the rancor between Rob Manfred and the players’ union spilled into the public sphere, poisoning our collective view of all of them.

JC Tretter is the current president of the NFLPA, and the Cornell-educated Browns center published a compelling essay this past week to the union’s website that portends problems. He tweeted it out with this explainer: “The NFL’s unwillingness to follow the recommendations of its own experts will put this season and the safety of all players at risk. This year must look differently if we hope to play a full season and crown a Super Bowl Champion.”

Tretter posted that on the same day word leaked the league was looking to hold back as much as 35 percent of player salaries in escrow, an idea that was resoundingly rejected by players across the social media universe. A small but representative example had Eagles cornerback Darius Slay saying, “We should get a bonus if we play!!! We putting our family’s at risk,” and Steelers wide receiver Ryan Switzer retweeting this take from powerhouse agent Drew Rosenhaus: “This is an absurd ask by the NFL. If anything the players deserve a bonus for playing with the added risk of contracting Covid-19 and potentially passing it on to their families.”

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It was officially laughed off, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, by NFLPA executive Don Davis with the phrase, “Basically, we told them to kick rocks.”

If you take that as one issue with clear need for compromise, remember that it is but one of so many that have yet to be officially figured out. Everything from fan attendance and stadium capacity to virus outbreaks during training camps and how (or if) infected players can get back to work. From how to handle players who opt out of playing this season at all to avoiding a schedule that ends up being imposed by the commissioner, like Manfred did with the 60-game baseball plan. Or simply figuring out how many, if any, preseason games will be included.

It’s not to say it can’t happen — the league shut me up with its seamless handling of the draft. But games cannot be played virtually, and players have every right to be concerned about the health risks endemic to a game that requires close contact and sharing of those dangerously infectious respiratory droplets. There is also the very real injury risk to players who have been kept away from their regular training routines because of the pandemic.

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As Tretter spelled out in an earlier essay about protecting players’ rights: “We are not invincible, and as recent reports have shown, we certainly aren’t immune to this virus. Underlying conditions like high BMI, asthma, and sleep apnea are all associated with a higher risk of developing severe symptoms and complications when infected with COVID-19. Those conditions are widespread across the league.

“NFL players are humans — some with immuno-compromised family members or live-in elderly parents. Trust me, we want to play football. But as a union, our most important job is keep our players safe and alive. The NFLPA will fight for our most at-risk players and their families.”

It is the benefit of time that has been fueling the NFL’s confidence in overcoming any potential roadblocks, with the league able to watch and observe what the rest of the sports world is doing. But while it was able to conduct a virtual offseason that was highlighted by the draft but included owners’ meetings via video calls and team meetings that way as well, the spring and summer sports were grappling with how to conclude or begin their seasons.

And as close as we may feel to seeing games inside the NBA and WNBA’s Florida bubbles, to watching the Stanley Cup (Canadian) playoffs or enjoying the geographically altered bicoastal baseball season, all of them have been beset by issues of positive tests, opt-out options, and bubble containment. Meanwhile, NFL training camps are only 2½ weeks away. The league hasn’t wavered in its certainty of a season, and maybe it’s right. I don’t see it, but here’s one certainty I do see: It’s not going to happen without a fight. Pretending otherwise is hubris wrapped in folly.

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As Tretter wrote at the start of his essay this past week: “Our normal return date for training camp is quickly approaching and we are still far from back to ‘normal.’ Our main concern is player safety, both in regard to preventing the virus’ transmission as well as preventing injuries after an extended and historically unique layoff.

“Like many other industries, football’s resistance to change is based on the belief that the best way to run things is the way we’ve always run things. That pervasive thought process will stop this season in its tracks.”

And as he wrote to close it: “We don’t want to merely return to work and have the season shut down before we even get started. The NFLPA will do its part to advocate for player safety. We will continue to hold the NFL accountable and demand that the league use data, science, and the recommendations of its own medical experts to make decisions. It has been clear for months that we need to find a way to fit football inside the world of coronavirus.

“Making decisions outside that lens is both dangerous and irresponsible.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.