The Harvard study argued that more guaranteed compensation would likely reduce instances of players battling through injuries—retired players admit to hiding concussions from team doctors—and that it might improve players’ mental health as well, easing the stress that comes with contingency. Baugh notes that the NFL’s employment structures, which leave football players less secure than their NBA counterparts, likely also tamp down protest and activism. The former tight end Martellus Bennett, in a 2016 interview with ESPN, summed up the feeling of belonging to a league in which a largely Black labor force incurs risk to make money for a largely white ownership class, saying that NFL stands for “N-----s For Lease.”
The 2020 season adds danger to an already-dangerous game. Although the NBA’s restart in Orlando, Florida, has so far succeeded in walling off a COVID-19 spread, the NFL’s plan hews closer to MLB’s, which led to a number of early-season outbreaks. Pro football will retain a normal travel schedule, aiming to stave off crisis by way of a daily testing regimen (except for game days) and strict behavioral requirements. Players are to train in small groups as often as possible, avoid postgame handshakes and jersey exchanges with competitors, and take separate planes. Gizmos abound: in-helmet face shields, antibacterial misters, no-blow whistles.
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“I continue to be nervous,” Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, says, “because they’re essentially trying to run MLB’s playbook, but with more people creating more chances for the virus to get in, and more contact creating more chances for it to spread around a team or between teams when it does.” Indeed, it is hard to imagine a sport less conducive to the concept of social distancing than football, in which most plays end with a half-dozen people piled on top of one another (the prohibition on high fives, in this context, seems more like hygiene theater than hygiene). Even optimistic outlooks hinge less on an NBA-esque comprehensive safety system than on an anxiety-induced uptick in personal responsibility. “I think pretty much all of the professional athletes, whatever the sport, they get that if they screw up as an individual, they imperil the whole team, its function and finances,” William Schaffner, an infectious-disease professor at Vanderbilt University, says. “And there are millions of dollars involved here—for themselves, for their owners, for the whole enterprise.”
Many players are publicly excited about the chance to return to work. But playing during this pandemic requires compromises that even NFL athletes have little experience making. To begin with, the calculations now involve family members. Players such as the Philadelphia Eagles receiver Marquise Goodwin and the New York Jets offensive lineman Leo Koloamatangi cited at-risk relatives as their reasons for sitting out this season. Then there are the substantial unknowns of the virus’s long-term effects. Von Miller, the Denver Broncos’ star pass rusher who contracted the virus in April, described an arduous road back to normal football training. Doctors have noted that complications from the virus can lead to a long-term reduction in lung capacity and blood-clotting issues that might make any sports participation inadvisable. Some linemen—the heaviest members of a team—face increased uncertainty, as people with a body mass index of 30 or higher are considered especially susceptible to the virus.