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How the pandemic affects the players, and why that matters

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In part three of the Covid Chronicles, we finally look at the fallout for the most integral part of the NFL machine: the players.

9th Annual NFL Honors - Arrivals Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

I’ve discussed some of the negative effects this virus might have on both the season ticket holders and coaching staffs, but I haven’t yet touched on the most important population within the NFL: the players themselves.

The NFLPA recently sent out a memo to all player agents directing them to have conversations with their clients about the risks inherent with Covid-19. Portions of the memo were released to ESPN.

“The NFLPA is directing you to provide each of your clients with important risk factor information provided by the Centers for Disease Control that appears below, and by mid-July, you must engage each of your clients in a conversation about the vital importance of carefully reviewing this information with their personal physician. They should ask their personal doctors any and all questions they have regarding these risk factors in light of their personal medical history and their job as an NFL player. They should also discuss any risk factors with their team doctor.”

Following a rushed reopening of the economy, many states are reporting soaring new case numbers. Arizona, Texas, and Florida, which are home to six NFL franchises, are reporting the largest increases in new cases over the past two weeks.

Some college teams, like Clemson, began training camps June 1 and in one month’s time have accrued 37 positive Covid-19 tests. Roughly one-third of the entire roster has contracted the disease within 30 days of returning to training.

Typical markers for triggering another shut down of the economy range between 6-10% positivity rates. Clemson’s football team is in the midst of a 33% positivity rate, which is horrifying.

I couldn’t find any indications that Clemson was shutting down their training camp, but the NFLPA has obviously noticed trends like those at the South Carolina University and is warning players against ANY group practices, even those held in private.

The NFLPA is also attempting to set new safety guidelines for players, coaches, and team personnel when training camps do plan on resuming June 28.

At least one NFL coach has spoken out about these new guidelines. Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh gave an interview with 105.7 The Fan and discussed his issues with maintaining safe social distancing while also trying to run a professional football team.

“I’ve seen all the memos on that, and to be quite honest with you, it’s impossible what they’re asking us to do. Humanly impossible,” Harbaugh said. “So, we’re going to do everything we can do. We’re going to space, we’re going to have masks. But, you know, it’s a communication sport. We have to be able to communicate with each other in person. We have to practice.”

Most sports, by their nature, are not socially distanced. Players are going to touch each other, breathe on each other, and maybe even bleed on each other during a typical football game. The most transmissible factors with regard to Covid-19 are breathing and touching.

Recent studies show disease transmission through surface touching isn’t as prevalent as previously thought, but close contact with a positive carrier is perhaps the most efficient way to contract the disease.

Just think about the offensive and defensive linemen closely placed along the line of scrimmage heavily breathing into each other’s faces before grabbing each other’s jerseys over and over again with fingers that will no doubt touch their eyes, nose, and mouth throughout the game.

Any player that understands how this disease is spread would likely shudder every time their quarterback screams out the next play in a tight huddle.

“I’m pretty sure the huddle is not going to be 6-feet spaced,” Harbaugh said. “Are guys going to shower one at a time all day? Are guys going to lift weights one at a time all day? These are things the league and the [players’ association] needs to get a handle on and needs to get agreed with some common sense so we can operate in a 13-hour day in training camp that they’re giving us and get our work done. That’s the one thing, you can tell by my voice, I’m a little frustrated with what I’m hearing there. And I think they need to get that pinned down a little better.”

I can understand Harbaugh’s reticism to running training camp with these new guidelines, but perhaps the common sense he is referring to would actually point towards there being no football at all this year or until a vaccine or herd immunity is reached.

Only one player has openly dissented towards returning to football as usual and he just so happens to be a Saints player.

Malcolm Jenkins used his latest platform as a CNN contributor to voice his opinion on the return to play. He is a well known leader not just on the Saints, but across the entire league, and if he is showing some apprehension about playing football this year, certainly others are too.

Jenkins is a 12 year veteran who has made $93 million and has two Super Bowl rings already. Other players without that level of financial security or professional achievement could be more easily persuaded into risking their health for their profession, but the word “nonessential” might also persuade them to believe their health is more important than providing entertainment or earning another payday.

The fact also remains that it’s not just a player’s health they need to be thinking about. Do they have elderly parents or grandparents that live with them or are in their “bubble?” Do they have children they need to worry about? Are any of their family members immunosuppressed? Even after one recovers from Covid, what will the ongoing negative effects include?

Those factors alone could keep an athlete away from the gridiron, but what about their own risk factors? Some common risk factors are asthma, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

If doctors cleared their patients based on their own personal risk factors, wouldn’t they have to ban the majority of offensive and defensive linemen who are for the most part overweight and possibly pre-diabetic, diabetic or hypertensive?

It’s also not a coincidence that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color. Being black is not a risk factor because of race, but it is because of racism. People of color are, in general, more exposed and less protected due to a variety of factors including, but not limited to their living situations, dangerous frontline jobs, chronic health conditions, and limited access to healthcare.

70% of NFL players are black despite black men only making up 6% of US population. In contrast, the NFL fan base is 83% white and 64% male.

Out of 32 NFL franchises, there are only two owners that aren’t white. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan is Pakistani American, and Buffalo Bills co-owner Kim Pegula is Asian American. There are zero black NFL team owners, CEOs, or Presidents.

Given the overwhelming percentage of ownership that is white, it’s imperative that owners consider the ways in which they empower or disempower their players, including their response to Covid-19.

If this is the part where you argue that the players are making millions of dollars, remember that most players aren’t making Drew Brees and Russell Wilson money. Including superstar salaries like Brees’ and Wilson’s, the NFL average salary is $2.7 million.

Excluding those mega deals that sway the curve, the true NFL average salary is actually closer to $860k. The average length of an NFL career is 3.3 years, which at the true average salary would net about $2.8 million over a career.

That’s like making $70k per year over a 40 year career, which sounds awesome, but is also probably less than what your average 30 year old at Google is pulling in.

Of the 11 richest NFL players ever, one is black; Russell Wilson. The richest, Roger Staubach, made the bulk of his fortune in real estate following his playing career. He’s worth $600 million. Peyton Manning and Steve Young are next on the list at a distant $250 and $200 million in net worth, respectively.

Conversely, David Tepper, owner of the Carolina Panthers, is worth $12 billion. Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is worth $8.5 billion. Gayle Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans is worth $3.2 billion.

Even the “poorest” NFL owner, Mark Davis of the Las Vegas Raiders, is worth $700 million; which is $100 million more than Staubach and half a billion more than Manning or Young.

No matter how much money they make, NFL players still don’t have the financial power or political influence their owners do have.

Think for a moment just how fucked up it would be for a predominately white owned business to make its predominantly black work force go back to work in a non-essential business for the majority profit of those few white owners along with the pleasure of a predominantly white audience?

I’ve read all these articles about how the NFL wants to get back to business as usual, but I haven’t read any articles, besides the one mentioning Jenkins, that are asking the players whether or not they even want to work in these conditions. It will be interesting to see what happens next month when deadlines for reporting to camp come.

One thing is for sure, a lot can happen in a month. Nowadays, a lot can happen in a week or even in one day. Is Jenkins just an outlier or is he the proverbial canary in the coalmine? Only time will tell.