September 20, 2020

N.F.L. Players Say #WeWantToPlay but Question Training Camp Safety

The N.F.L. plays football in rainstorms, blizzards and blazing heat. Now, the league wants to play in a pandemic.

On Monday, rookies from the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans were the first of thousands of players to report to training camp after an off-season of virtual workouts. They will be followed in the coming week by other rookies, quarterbacks, injured players and then all other players, just as is detailed in a memo sent to teams on Friday.

The league’s insistence on sticking to the pledge to start its season on time comes as infections from the coronavirus are rising in dozens of states, including California, Florida and Texas, which together are home to eight N.F.L. teams.

The owners and the N.F.L. Players Association have worked for months to find ways to bring players back together as safely as possible. They have established protocols for how players should social distance when they travel and use locker rooms, and how long they must be quarantined if they test positive for the virus or were in contact with an infected person.

But the two sides have still not agreed on several other key issues, including implications for players who opt out of the season, mandates on equipment that would limit the potential for spreading the virus like face shields on helmets, and the length of the preseason (owners passed a proposal for two games per team; players want none). On Monday, the league and the union agreed on daily player testing for the coronavirus for at least the first two weeks of training camp.

These open questions have prompted some of the league’s biggest stars — including Patrick Mahomes and J.J. Watt — to start a social media campaign using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to get the league to adopt the more stringent proposals that the players prefer, including daily testing and no preseason games.

“If the NFL doesn’t do their part to keep players healthy there is no football in 2020,” New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “It’s that simple. Get it done.”

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson made a more personal plea. “My wife is pregnant,” he wrote on Twitter. “We want to play football but we also want to protect our loved ones.”

The players and their union have asked for more measures to mitigate risk, but they recognize that the owners have the power to open training camps when they want. DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, compared the team owners to a factory proprietor who decides when to operate a plant.

Because the owners plan to open training camps on schedule, it is the union’s job “to hold them accountable for whether it is safe,” Smith told reporters on a conference call on Friday.

Image“My wife is pregnant,” Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson wrote on Twitter, referring to the pop star Ciara. “We want to play football but we also want to protect our loved ones.”
Credit…Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

The players’ taking their case to millions of followers on social media is one way to try to keep management accountable — and to win in the court of public approval. Before agreeing to a 60-game season, Major League Baseball players engaged in an acrimonious negotiation with its league last month over many of the same issues. Star players like league M.V.P. Mike Trout deployed their message on social media, repeating “tell us when and where” in their posts to emphasize that they were willing to play as long as they viewed conditions of their return as safe.

In the past week, the N.F.L. Players Association has taken a similar approach, enlisting well-known players like San Francisco 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman to argue for more stringent health protocols. But because the owners have the right to open camp when they want, and because fans are eager to watch football again, it is not clear whether the players will gain ground.

“The only realistic leverage the players have is their star power, because on the legal side there’s not much they can do,” said Mark Conrad, who teaches sports law at the Gabelli School School of Business at Fordham University in Manhattan. “Football is also tantamount to religion for a lot of fans and they want to see football, so I don’t know how effective these tweets will be.”

The N.F.L.’s chief medical officer, Allen Sills, said that there was little daylight between the league and the union when it came to safety protocols. The two sides agreed that players would be tested every day for the first two weeks, then every other day. If more than 5 percent of tests are positive in the first two weeks, teams will continue testing every day.

But he warned that tests were not perfectly accurate and that additional measures — protective equipment, social distancing and contact tracing — were also needed.

“We know that we can’t eliminate risk, but we’re trying to mitigate risk for everyone,” Sills said. “We can’t test our way to safety.”

Despite the precautions, at least one team has decided that it needs more time to prepare to practice. The Miami Dolphins, who play in South Florida, where infections are rising rapidly, told their rookies to report on Thursday, two days later than most teams.

Some players have accused the team owners of prioritizing the league’s finances over all else. One former team executive, Amy Trask, said that the league’s decision to stick to its schedule spoke more to its confidence that it would ultimately find solutions than to a cavalier attitude about player safety.

“Of course, economics play a big part of it,” said Trask, the longtime president of the Raiders who left the club in 2013. “But from a business perspective, I don’t think the outlook of team owners is ‘We’re tough,’ but ‘We’re smart.’”

While the two sides wrangle over safety measures, they are also negotiating over a second pressing matter: how to offset the loss of revenue from having a limited number or no fans in stadiums this season. The owners proposed keeping 35 percent of players’ salaries in escrow as a way to recoup that money as quickly as possible. That was a nonstarter for the union, which prefers to absorb the losses by lowering the salary cap, which is the maximum teams can pay players, over as many as 10 years.

“We know that players are taking all of the risk by returning to work,” the union said in a statement last week. “We also know there will be a shortfall in revenues next year, but players cannot be asked to bear the full brunt of both the health and safety risk and the financial one.”

The financial formula, though, does not need to be agreed on by the start of training camp. The more pressing matter for the players is how to safely start the season. In addition to the coronavirus, they are concerned about a possible spike in injuries after a long layoff. They point to 2011, when players were locked out by the owners during the off-season and sustained a rash of injuries during training camp.

While the N.B.A., the W.N.B.A., Major League Soccer and the N.W.S.L. have all resumed their seasons by quarantining their players in enclosed communities, Major League Baseball and the N.F.L. have chosen to let players return to their homes at night after training, increasing their risk of exposure to the virus.

The league and its players will soon find out whether the protections in place are enough, or whether more steps will be needed to keep the schedule on track.

“Every decision we make this year should be done through a medical lens,” said J.C. Tretter, a center on the Cleveland Browns and the president of the union. “No one can wish this away.”