GREEN BAY — Adrian Amos wants to play football. And he’s obviously not the only one. But the Green Bay Packers’ veteran safety apparently reached the end of his rope on Friday.
Maybe it was the ridiculousness of the NFL’s plan to outlaw postgame interactions between teams — assuming of course, there are indeed games after which players might want to interact. Maybe it was something more substantive, like NFL owners asking players to put 35% of their 2020 salaries in escrow to offset the league’s expected fiscal losses with limited or no fans in the stands this season — again, if the games are in fact played at all.
Whatever it was, Amos decided he needed to say something, so he took to his Twitter account and wrote, “We all want to play football. We also have an obligation to our families … family comes first. So to say, ‘We (are) taking some of your money and we don’t have the answers to whether you’re going to be safe’ comes off as disrespectful to most. … It’s ‘take and take’ (but) where is the give?”
With Amos and his fellow Packers veterans set to start training camp on July 28 — and with the Packers’ rookies scheduled to arrive on July 21 — it certainly feels as though the NFL has squandered whatever advantage it had as the COVID-19 pandemic began shortly after the football season ended. While other leagues were in the middle of their seasons (NBA, NHL) or just about to start (MLB), the NFL merely had the inconvenience of having its free-agent period, college draft and offseason programming forced into the virtual realm.
“Time,” Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy confessed in his monthly column on the team website, “is no longer on our side.”
Back in March, the NFL expressed confidence as the early stages of the pandemic were unfolding that games would be played on time, in their normal venues, with fans in the stands. In fact, that’s precisely what the NFL’s executive vice president and general counsel, Jeff Pash, said at the time. And as social distancing initiatives and stay-at-home orders flattened the curve, it looked like the NFL might’ve caught a break timing-wise.
Now, though, COVID-19 cases are spiking throughout the country, especially in Arizona, Texas, Florida and California — four states in which nine of the NFL’s 32 teams are based. And players, led by ex-Packers center JC Tretter, now a member of the Cleveland Browns and the president of the NFL Players Association, are expressing concerns about their safety and the NFL’s seemingly cobbled-together plans.
“We are not invincible, and as recent reports have shown, we certainly aren’t immune to this virus,” Tretter wrote in a column on the NFLPA’s website. “Underlying conditions like high BMI, asthma and sleep apnea are all associated with a higher risk of developing severe symptoms and complications when infected with COVID-19. Those conditions are widespread across the league.
“NFL players are humans — some with immuno-compromised family members or live-in elderly parents. Trust me: we want to play football. But as a union, our most important job is keeping our players safe and alive. The NFLPA will fight for our most at-risk players and their families.”
In another column, Tretter wrote in part, “Every decision this year that prioritizes normalcy over innovation, custom over science or even football over health, significantly reduces our chances of completing the full season.
“We don’t want to merely return to work and have the season shut down before we even get started. The NFLPA will do its part to advocate for player safety. We will continue to hold the NFL accountable and demand that the league use data, science and the recommendations of its own medical experts to make decisions. It has been clear for months that we need to find a way to fit football inside the world of coronavirus. Making decisions outside that lens is both dangerous and irresponsible.”
So far, the NFL has made plans to cut the preseason in half, to two games per team — although no formal announcement has been made and the NFLPA is pushing for the preseason to be canceled altogether. The league also had all its teams move training camps to their respective headquarters, where clubs had to reconfigure locker rooms, weight rooms and meeting rooms to allow for maximized social distancing. Primary football personnel (coaches, players, equipment and medical staffers) will be isolated from other team employees as well.
One clear challenge will be keeping players and staff from contracting COVID-19 when they are away from the facility. Unlike the NBA and NHL “bubble” scenarios, with the NBA sequestered at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and the NHL in Edmonton, Alberta, and Toronto, NFL players will be able to sleep in their own beds each night or have the option to stay at a team-sponsored hotel in an effort to minimize exposure.
What training camp will look like is up in the air, although the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to a gradual ramp-up to actual practices. However, the players want to focus on practices after all on-field offseason work was wiped out, and the NFLPA’s team player representatives voted unanimously last week in favor of not having any preseason games. Training camps will be closed to fans, although the NFL is allowing for the possibility of one event — such as the Packers’ annual Family Night practice inside Lambeau Field — being open to the public in some form.
Multiple news outlets have reported that the league believes it can unilaterally institute rules — including forcing preseason games to be played — and the NFLPA would be forced to file a grievance. If that happens, the league and its players would be risking similarly embarrassing bad public relations as MLB risked during its back-and-forth before commissioner Rob Manfred finally mandated the 60-game regular-season set to begin later this month.
On Saturday, the NFL Network reported that the NFLPA sent a proposal to NFL owners that included several requests, including to not have any portion of their 2020 salaries put in escrow; to have a flat salary cap of $198.2 million for 2021; to spread 2020 revenue losses over the 2022 through 2030 salary caps to prevent a sudden, precipitous drop in the 2021 cap; to have all fully guaranteed money paid even if games are canceled; and to pay players a “COVID-19 risk stipend” of up to $500,000 if games are canceled. The exact figure for such a stipend would depend on when the cancelation of remaining games occurred, among other factors.
The NFLPA and owners are set to have a conference call Monday to further discuss these issues, the NFL Network reported.
At this point, the idea of 35% of players’ salaries being held in escrow — a concept leaked to the media last week — has not been made as a formal request by owners. But with severely reduced revenues expected — even with the league’s lucrative television contracts in place and games set to be broadcast from empty or near-empty stadiums to what figure to be record viewership numbers — it’s unclear how the league and its players will proceed.
As of now, the NFL is allowing each team — in conjunction with local health officials — to decide the appropriate number of fans to allow into games if fans are indeed permitted to attend. The Packers have yet to make any announcement on what they expect their Lambeau Field capacity to be, but the Baltimore Ravens announced on Wednesday that M&T Bank Stadium’s capacity will be 14,000 — or just 19% of the stadium’s normal capacity of 71,008. The Jacksonville Jaguars have set TIAA Bank Field’s capacity at 25%, or roughly 17,000.
It’s also unclear how extensively rosters will be expanded. Murphy wrote that practice squads are set to expand and qualifications for eligibility will be adjusted to give teams greater roster flexibility. But what if an outbreak takes out an entire position group — like the offensive line? Or what if a team’s starting quarterback tests positive but is asymptomatic and is physically able to play — but is forbidden to do so?
The NFL is still working through its testing plans, including how frequently players are tested. But its rules, in accordance with CDC guidelines, are in place and call for players who do test positive to be quarantined for up to two weeks.
All of this, of course, is aimed at having that full 16-game season that the league hoped for back in March.
“The thing is, nobody knows. Nobody knows,” Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview this month. “Every day is something different. Whether it’s the coaches, whether it’s the people upstairs, whether it’s the NFLPA — nobody knows what’s going to happen day-to-day. So that’s just the toughest part right now. I don’t know. They have the day for us to report and all that, but you never know. That could change based on everything that’s going on. Everything’s up in the air. You just never know.”
You may not know, but you can hope — which is precisely what Amos is doing.
“Man, we need to go back to work soon,” Amos wrote on Twitter Saturday, “so I can get off social media.”