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NFL players balance COVID-19 with getting back on the field

With training camp rapidly approaching and COVID-19 still a large concern, the NFL and the NFL PLayers Association are working to come up with a safe and prudent plan to mitigate the health risk of players, coaches and staff members.

That includes how best to handle the preseason, with the NFL recommending cutting games from four to two, but the NFLPA voting on Friday to eliminate the four-game schedule altogether. The two sides now will have to hammer out a compromise.

The motivation by both sides is to create the safest environment for players as they simultaneously deal with the threat of COVID-19 while also preparing for a football season without the benefit of a standard offseason conditioning and preparation program.

The difference of opinion about the preseason is only one of a host of questions the NFL and its players are facing, including how many players to bring to camp and how to structure practices and meetings in a way that mitigates health risk.

One idea is trimming training camp rosters from 90 to between 75 and 85 to create a more manageable social distancing program between players, an idea a high-ranking NFL executive confirms is being bandied about. “But there is nothing certain yet,” the executive said.

The NFLPA also discussed on Friday a step-by-step program to lead players into the season opener. It consists of a three-day camp opener devoted to medical and equipment issues, a 21-day strength and conditioning segment, 10 days of unpadded practices and a 14-day period with a maximum of 10 practices, including eight in pads.

With time of the essence and no definitive answers on how best to handle all the complexities and uncertainties, there are varying levels of concern about how prepared the NFL is to open 32 training camps in just over three weeks.

With the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in most of the country, those safety concerns have a new sense of urgency

“I don’t see how things start on time,” one NFL player said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But who knows what the next three weeks will bring.”

Said Raiders cornerback Nevin Lawson: “I don’t know exactly how it’s going to play out. I just pray that players are able to stay safe, especially with their families,

“A football team is a very unique kind of team. It’s not just 15 or 20 players. Beginning in training camp, that’s 90 players, and that’s not even talking about all the staff that’s in and around the team. That’s a lot of people. So it’s going to be interesting to see how they’re going to manage that as far as keeping players safe.”

That said, based on a sampling of opinions from players and player agents speaking on the condition of anonymity, players appear more eager to begin the process of opening the season than they are worried about the presence of COVID-19.

“I don’t think it’s very high, to be honest,” one NFL player responded when asked what the level of concern is among players about starting training camp under the current conditions.

Said a prominent NFL agent: “My clients are not concerned at all and have been ready to get to work, rookies more so than veterans because they want to get paid. But I have yet to have a player say, ‘I’m worried about getting COVID-19.’ They want to play football and get the show on the road.”

Due to COVID-19, the NFL has conducted virtually all of its 2020 offseason under strict social distance guidelines. From free agency to the draft to offseason programs, everything has been done remotely through the use of social communication apps like ZOOM and Skype.

But the day is drawing near when players and coaches have to actually gather together at team facilities and meeting rooms and on practice fields to begin the process of preparing for the season.

“Although there is a concern, I think the vast majority of players are anxious to get back to work,” said an NFL player agent.

Money obviously plays a role in shaping opinion.

“I’m sure a player with fifty million sitting in the bank is thinking differently than a young guy who is playing for that first big contract,” an NFL agent said.

Nevertheless, as the same agent pointed out, the salaries of each NFL player is delivered on a game-to-game basis. So obviously that creates great motivation within player circles to get started.

But it also mandates a level of responsibility for players to be as prudent as possible following all protocols and guidelines both in their professional and personal lives to insure their availability on game days.

When the NFL opens the regular season, players will often be on their own, away from the controlled environment of team facilities for large segments of the day. How they conduct themselves away from the facility can certainly minimize or increase their risk factor.

“At the end of the day, they aren’t getting paid unless they play football,” the agent said. “So if they can realize that and connect those dots, that their actions outside the building are going to affect whether or not they’re going to get paychecks, it creates a situation of ‘OK guys, let’s have some self-control the next six months and quarantine yourself and be with your family and be as safe as possible.”

Like so many of their fellow citizens across the country, football players are faced with the challenge of balancing safety with making a living and providing for their families. At some point, the two concepts cease to be mutually exclusive.

“I really hope we do get to play.” one player said. “I need to have a good year on this deal I’m on.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore onTwitter.

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