They are terrified, and it’s understandable.
The pandemic is putting the same strains on the lives of NFL players that it does on many other Americans. They are worried about giving COVID-19 to their families and friends. They’re worried it might infect an older assistant or head coach on their team, causing serious illness or worse.
They fear for their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends, and even fellow NFL players.
One player said in a text he won’t visit his mom out of fear for giving her the coronavirus. Another worried about becoming a patient zero with close friends.
Some look at their kids and wonder: Is this shit worth it? Is football worth my demise, or the possible demise of someone I love?
“I looked at my son. I looked at my family, and I just didn’t think it was worth it,” Jaguars player Lerentee McCray, a seven-year veteran, told me this summer after opting out. “I could catch it and bring it home to them. Or I can get it and even if it doesn’t kill me, it could destroy my career long-term. I feel really weird not playing football right now, but can’t. I can’t risk doing something so dangerous and maybe hurting the people I love.”
In the end, most players decided the money was worth the risk. So, they play.
Yet there’s been a definite shift in that attitude over the past few months and even weeks, several told me in various interviews, as the virus spreads through locker rooms. Most requested anonymity for fear of angering NFL owners and the league office.
This summer there was skepticism that a season could be played, and doubt that the league’s safety protocols, like regular testing, could protect them.
In August, 67 players opted out, a larger number than many in the NFL had expected. Still, with approximately 2,000 in the league, the number was proportionately small.
As the season progressed, and with more than 210,000 Americans dead, the skepticism morphed into regret. After a series of outbreaks, there’s a strong consensus, some players tell me, playing wasn’t just a mistake, it’s potentially catastrophic.
One player remarked that if the President of the United States can catch it, or the Prime Minister of Great Britain, what chance does an NFL linebacker have in staying safe?
They see the death counts etched on various news channels and social media outlets. They express the same sense of vulnerability and fear that most rational people living on a fact-based Earth do.
They feel the assurances this summer from the league and union promising safety and containment were essentially science fiction because basically neither of those things exist. There’s nothing safe about playing a contact sport during a plague.
“I think outside of here, the people that don’t have to walk in our building — whether it is the league office, whether it is the NFLPA — they don’t care,” Patriots defensive back Jason McCourty said. “For them, it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety, it is about, ‘What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good, looks good, and how can we go out there and play games?’ I think what I kind of learned personally throughout this situation is it is going to be up to us as individuals in this building to just really take care of one another.”
That quote illustrates not just the frustration I’ve heard from players, but also the sense that they’re fighting the pandemic practically alone.
“I think a lot of guys are nervous,” one player says, “because if we get it, or our family gets it, we’re on our own. If we’re still having problems months or years from now, the NFL won’t help us.”
This is how the NFL has always treated its players. Former Cowboys executive Tex Schramm once said that “players are like cattle and the owners are ranchers, and the owners can always get more cattle.” That attitude hasn’t changed, except now, using Schramm’s analogy, some of the cattle are infected.
The league initially did a solid job slowing viral spread. It used a battery of tactics beyond testing such as temperature checks, and constantly emphasized players to limit their contact with people outside of the league, to at least postpone any issues.
The NFL, however, had no plan to deal with the virus once there was an inevitable outbreak. Viruses are likely billions of years old. They’re relentless and cunning and can beat humanity’s greatest scientists, so, assuredly, they’d beat Roger Goodell. They don’t care about Russell Wilson’s MVP season, and they don’t care about your fantasy team. They just infect. They just destroy.
As infections began spreading from Tennessee to New England (whose facilities were shut down days ago by the NFL) to Kansas City to Chicago, the NFL flopped in its response, making a league-wide viral outbreak easier and, in turn, reinforcing a narrative among players that proceeding with the season was a terrible mistake.
One of the things players tell me that’s changed their thinking from the summer is the ballistic pace of the infections. One moment the virus isn’t there, the next it’s calling plays in the huddle. As a virus spreads through a locker room there’s a sense of helplessness. Players now think of football during the pandemic era not as a calculated risk, but Russian Roulette.
All of the outbreaks have left a player base more scared than ever before. That’s the word I’m hearing the most: scared.
Not everything is the league’s fault. Some players were just as arrogant and reckless. Tennessee players held practices away from the team’s facility in direct violation of NFL rules. The Raiders went to a charity event maskless.
Players are smart and some of them knew this is exactly where the league would be. Pro Bowl 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman told me this summer he felt there would be an attempt at a season but he wasn’t certain there would be a finish. Big names, like Patriots linebacker and three-time Super Bowl winner Dont’a Hightower, and four-time Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley of the Jets, opted out.
They are terrified.
Some of them. Maybe most of them. It’s understandable why.
Because it’s likely things won’t get better anytime soon.