All they need is players, a plan and a clue

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There’s a lot that needs to be done before the NFL season starts. And a lot of has to do with upper management, like Jed York and John Lynch (AP Photo/Marcio Sanchez)

Don’t worry, the higher-ups in the NFL say. They are working out a schedule that will have the season starting on time with complete safety for the players.

Great. Did anyone tell them rookies report tomorrow?

The fact is the NFL is barreling into this cockeyed season with the grace and elegance of a train wreck. Alarmed by the lack of information and progress, some of the biggest names in the game convened a Sunday tweetstorm, calling out the owners.

Using the hashtag #WeWantToPlay, stars like Drew Brees, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes demanded some answers. J.J. Watt’s tweet listed things the players “don’t know.” That included questions like, what will be done when a player tests positive? And is there a formal “opt-out” clause?

Meanwhile, the owners are still wondering if the fellows would like to play a meaningless exhibition game before the season starts. OMG, you are not getting it. It will be a miracle if a season is pulled off and you’re arguing over an exhibition game? How clueless can you be?

Want an example of how serious this is? College football is openly discussing postponing their season to the spring. They might not even play in the fall. Frankly, I’m a little surprised someone in the NFL hasn’t raised the idea of a spring season.

In a way this is no surprise. Football was always going to be the hardest sport to bring back, unless there was a COVID-19 cure. Many of the problems are obvious.

For starters, football has more people — 22 — in every play than most other sports. Soccer is also 11 a side, but they are spread out from goalie to goalie. There are times when all the football players are all crowded within ten yards of each other.

They are, of course, all breathing directly into each other’s faces. But the Players Association and owners can’t even agree on face shields. The league wants to make them mandatory. The players want to try them in training camp and see if they want to keep them.

And let’s stress that the health issues are very important and serious. When Wilson tweets: “I am concerned. My wife is pregnant,” there is no doubting the sincerity of the concern. And when he says “there’s still No Clear Plan on Player Health & Family Safety,” he’s calling out the league.

But we also have to appreciate that some of this is about money. Which is fine. The NFL is a profit machine and everyone — in and out of uniform — should keep that in mind.

From here it looks like the players are saying: we want to get a lot of this financial stuff nailed down now. Not later when we’ve already started the season and something comes up.

Watt mentions the need for “A strong and fair opt-out clause,” meaning a player could decide not to play simply because he felt he was a high risk. Or felt family members might be infected. Other sports have that and several players have announced that they have opted-out of the season.

Theoretically, there would be no penalty for opting out  to protect your health. The question is, what effect does that have on salary — does anyone get paid while sitting out? — and on service time.  Does it count for a career year? You’d think the pay issue would be obvious. If you don’t play, you don’t get paid. But news reports say there is some disagreement on guaranteed salaries.

Pro Football Talk says players are hearing that the league would not pay guaranteed salaries if the season is scrapped. They might not even pay if there is only a partial season . The players – some of the league’s biggest and best paid stars – were working on the assumption that guaranteed money is guaranteed money. The owners now may be trying to pull some of that back.

These are issues that could get ugly in a hurry. The tweetstorm was just a reminder that the players are united and that the big names are on board.

Nobody has said work shutdown — yet. But the players may feel they have public opinion on their side. You have to think that although people love football, they would support the players saying they aren’t going to report until the health and safety issues are handled.

Watt addresses it specifically when he said the player’s understanding is if players don’t “show up on time, they can be fined or considered in breach of contract.” Which sounds like threat by the owners to head off a holdout.

That could be a deal breaker. The players have no incentive to suit up if they feel the health protocols are not sufficient. And, by the way, some financial stuff needs to be cleared up too.

So, to review, the NFL needs to outline a coronavirus program that identifies positive players and keeps non-positive players safe; decide what to do with the “opt-out” clause; agree that an exhibition game is silly and pointless; work out the finances if there is no season or a partial one; and get everyone ready to play games on Sept. 13.

By tomorrow.

 



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