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Thursday afternoon was the deadline for NFL players to opt out of the 2020 season, and the final tally of those who did so is 66.
For some players, like New York Giants tackle Nate Solder, it was likely an easy decision: Solder’s 5-year-old son Hudson has been battling cancer for the entirety of his life, first diagnosed when he was 3 months old, and Solder himself had a bout with testicular cancer in 2014.
For others, it was more difficult for myriad reasons.
All of them are worthy of empathy and have my admiration, because a fair number could be opting out of their NFL careers.
The reality of the NFL is such that that’s likely why we didn’t see more players make the decision to sit out. Coaches and the league move on from star players quickly and lower-tier players even faster.
Guy suffers a season-ending injury on the field, and the huddle just moves a respectful distance from the training staff and the teammate writhing in pain. He’s carted off and play resumes.
A new team owner comes in and not only boots the successful longtime head coach but the franchise-defining quarterback (looking at you, David Tepper).
Some coaches use bottom-of-the-roster guys as so much chum, cutting in an attempt to send a message to the rest of the team during a losing streak. Maybe they get to come back a few weeks later, maybe they don’t.
For all of Thursday morning’s spin that “only” 56 players have tested positive for COVID-19 since teams began reporting to facilities 10 day ago, there’s no way to guarantee that number won’t change — dramatically and in a hurry. Without an NBA-style bubble, notoriously controlling NFL coaches can do whatever possible to mitigate a viral spread inside team facilities, but once players leave the building, they’re left to cross their fingers and hope everyone on the roster is doing the right thing.
Many will, but let’s be honest: some won’t.
And if one or two teams have outbreaks and more players want to opt out, things could get dicey. Detroit Lions linebacker Jamie Collins told media Thursday that players should have gotten more time to make a decision, mentioning that there are “going to be problems down the road,” which would lead to more men wanting out.
For those who put the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones over the game, we’ve seen statements from coaches saying they understand and support the decision. And some of those coaches may truly believe that.
Yet there are likely a lot of coaches who are like Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, who intimated in a recent interview that he’s not a fan of players sitting out.
“I have personal views that would probably not sit well with my professional occupation right now,” Del Rio told The Athletic. “I think I’ll just leave it like that.”
On Twitter, Del Rio said players know the risk of playing the game and said the priority “is not trying to be perfectly safe,” which is a straw man argument. Yes, by now most football players understand the risks of playing football — risks like torn ligaments, broken bones or concussion.
Catching a potentially life-threatening virus is not a “risk” of playing football.
And if the league and teams aren’t “trying to be perfectly safe,” then what the hell are they doing? While there are an unknown number of players who have preexisting health issues, like asthma, that would make a case of COVID-19 worse, every team has people in the building, like coaches and support personnel, who fall into the high-risk category because of their age.
But who cares, right Jack? It’s football! Manly men do manly things like contract the coronavirus for football! There’s nothing more macho than developing a COVID-related cardiac condition like Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez — if Rodriguez was a football-playing man he’d play through it, right Jack?
Whether they did it because they themselves are immunocompromised, like Solder or San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Shon Coleman, who beat leukemia as a teenager, or because they’re new fathers with concerns for a parent’s health, like New England Patriots linebacker Donta’ Hightower, this was their decision to make.
Hightower and Solder may get a chance to play again. They’ve shown enough in their respective careers for their teams to bring them back, even after a year away. But a guy like Hightower’s New England teammate Najee Toran, who spent last year on the practice squad, may never be on another NFL roster. The idea that football should come before pretty much anything else lingers among many coaches, and that will certainly be in play here, especially for players who don’t have a clear-cut reason not to play.
Regardless of what commissioner Roger Goodell says now, we’re talking about a league that has ousted players who spoke up for things like racial injustice but welcomed ones back from domestic violence incidents.
Whether they realize it or not, a fair number of those 66 players haven’t just opted out of the season, they’ve opted out of the NFL.
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