NFL players sound worried, and I don’t blame them

John Romano | Rookies are to report for training camp shortly, but there seems to be widespread concern among players about pandemic safety.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was among the crowd of NFL players to question the league's commitment to safety on social media.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was among the crowd of NFL players to question the league's commitment to safety on social media. [ Russell Wilson Twitter feed ]
Published July 21, 2020

TAMPA — The official statement may have been phrased differently, but when the Blue Jays asked their federal government about MLB teams coming to Toronto to play baseball last week, Canadian officials began pointing in the direction of the United States and shouting, “Unclean!”

And the Bahamas, a place almost entirely dependent on tourism, just politely told visitors from the U.S. to stay home.

Meanwhile, here in Tampa Bay, a bunch of rookies will show up at Buccaneers training camp later this week prepared to sweat, bleed and manhandle each other while fans watch from a distance and cheer through their masks.

Welcome to the NFL, gentlemen!

Related: Players plead with NFL to address health, safety concerns over coronavirus

Yes, it’s an incongruous world we’re living in. As COVID-19 cases in the U.S. start to dwarf the rest of the globe, we’re posing for cardboard cutout selfies to put in the bleachers.

Major League Baseball is cheerfully set to begin its regular season this week with the NBA starting next week and the NHL soon to follow. And then there’s the NFL. The league with all the money, all the attention and seemingly little of the expected handwringing even as training camps set to open.

So it could not have been a surprise when veteran NFL players began complaining about the league’s proposed coronavirus protocols on Sunday, mainly because the NFL, at that point, had not publicly offered many protocols.

At least that was the accusation of players on social media. Houston pass rusher J.J. Watt has been vocal about the lack of concrete plans regarding the frequency of COVID-19 tests, the procedures following positive tests, the number of preseason games and training camp rules.

Related: Five Bucs rookies who will have the biggest impact in 2020

While other leagues spent months tweaking and refining safety procedures, the NFL has given a full-speed-ahead impression of coronavirus plans.

There’s been little outward sense that the league is wrestling with its conscience concerning the health or ethical implications of playing football in the middle of a pandemic. So, yes, the players had some legitimate points to make.

Of course, and this is no small matter, the players’ social media campaign also had the stink of posturing for economic considerations. The #WeWantToPlay hashtag made it feel less grassroots and more market-tested.

Related: Raymond James Stadium to receive $10.4 million for pandemic-related upgrades

And the players seemed to get some of their hoped-for concessions when the league announced Monday that testing would be done daily for the first two weeks of training camp, and then every other day as long as positive rates remain under 5 percent.

But players will still be looking for clarity on how much of their salary they can expect if they choose, or are forced, to opt out for coronavirus reasons.

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“You want to watch football this year? Us players need to remain healthy in order to make that happen,‘' Rams quarterback Jared Goff tweeted. “The NFL needs to do their part in order to bring football back safely in 2020.‘'

The challenge of keeping NFL players safe from the virus is enormous, and potentially impossible. Unlike the NBA and NHL, the NFL will not be operating out of a bubble. And unlike baseball, where contact between players is fairly minimal, these players are literally on top of each other play after play. Not to mention, the NFL is dealing with twice as many players as an active baseball roster, which increases potential exposure.

Should players be concerned? Heck, yes.

Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman turned heads a few days ago when he talked about praying to make it through the night with a 104.5-degree fever while recently battling the coronavirus. And, even if NFL players are not concerned about their own health, they should certainly be worried about endangering at-risk relatives at home.

Should the NFL be more responsive? Heck, yes.

Related: Are you ready for some football? NFL players, owners are not

Maybe the league has all kinds of safety procedures behind the scenes, but it seems irresponsible to be this close to the start of training camp with so many players saying they don’t even know the basic ground rules they’ll be facing.

At this point, the NFL season almost feels like wishful thinking.

The rest of the world is looking at the U.S. as if we don’t know how to wash our hands, and yet we’re preparing to put hundreds of giant-sized men on the same field to run into each other during a health crisis.

Maybe the NFL has a plan to make it work.

At this point, we’d love to hear it.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.