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The NFL's Plan is to Withhold Pay from Players Who Contract Covid-19 at 'High Risk Events.' Is This Gonna Work?

One thing nobody can accuse me of over the last five months is being guilty of coronapanic. I'm a middle aged manchild who wears a Bane mask to the grocery store, not an epidemiologist. And I don't pretend to be anything else. If anything, I've pissed off some of my family and friends for not being sufficiently panicked. Though I'm following all the rules, I'm doing my best to follow the science as well. Which doesn't go over well, depending on whom you're talking to. 

For instance, in Massachusetts they're talking about either not opening the schools in the fall or doing half school/half remote learning. And a lot of people think they should. Which is not only going to be a disaster for families where parents work, it goes against the data. Of the state's 8,300 Covid deaths, 5,400 have taken place in nursing homes. The average age is holding steady at 82. A total of 137 of those deaths have been to people under the age of 50. And statistically speaking, the death rate among people under 20 is zero out of 100,000. That doesn't mean zero young people have died. It means that the number per 100K is closer to 0 than it is to 1. But I'll bet you anything the deaths from depression, substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide is much, much higher since the lockdown began. 

Which brings me to the topic of the specific guys in their 20s, 30s, and a handful in their early 40s who are going back to work this week: Football players. The NFL season is, like MLB, impossible to contain in a single, quarantined bubble. Restricting travel would be impractical. Limiting the number of opponents each team faces would render the league almost unrecognizable and raise the question of whether it's worth playing the season at all. 

So the NFL has adopted a plan in which they'll test the players, and then leave it up to them to self-quarantine. With the threat of discipline from the team or even the loss of pay to keep them in line.

Source - [P]layers are required to test negative twice before they will be allowed entry to the team facility at the start of training camp. Any player who is diagnosed with COVID-19 after two negative entry tests will have his condition diagnosed as a football injury, per the NFL/NLFPA agreement. ...

The memo also states: "Clubs/NFL can challenge designation as a football related injury if it can prove that the player contracted COVID-19 through engaging in high risk conduct below. (This issue remains open.)"

Per the memo, the NFL defines high-risk conduct as attending:

• an indoor nightclub with more than 15 people

• an indoor bar with more than 15 people, other than to pick up food

• an indoor house party with more than 15 people

• an indoor music concert/entertainment event with more than 15 people

• a professional sporting event, other than applicable NFL games or events, with more than 15 people

• an indoor religious service attended by more than 25% of a venue's capacity

So that's the plan. Everything in their lives will be a math problem, with their entire year's salary on the line if they get it wrong. Every player in the league is free to take his family out to Olive Garden. But if there are four of them at the table, there can only be 11 others in the place. If a 16th walks in, they have to ask for a doggie bag and leave or risk all their income. They can take their wives to Game Night at a neighbor's house with seven other couples. But if the Petersons from up the street make a surprise appearance, they've got to walk out in the middle of Cards Against Humanities or potentially lose their livelihood. And the very high number of devoutly religious players had better be able to count the number of parishoners and divide by the empty seats, because while God would like to see those pews filled to capacity, Roger Goodell won't tolerate 25.1%. 

I'm not even necessarily saying this is a terrible solution. Frankly, I don't have a better one, as I've spent most of the day in front of a mirror in my mask doing Bane lines. I just can't see any way this is either practical or enforceable. It seems to me more like the exact same sort of window dressing half-solution the NFL always comes up with so they can say they've done all they could. CTE is a problem? Oh, we've poured all sorts of money into research! Players who beat their wives get off with minor punishments? We've got to do better! More CTE? We've got a blue tent now an a consultant who takes guys off the field! The Super Bowl halftime has become a political statement? We gave Jay-Z a truckload of money! We're cool again!

Now they're faced with 2,560 young males reporting to a job where by definition they can't offer the illusion of social distancing and not exchanging practically all the bodily fluids. And the league's protocol involves the players themselves crossing their hearts and promising to limit their contact with the outside world, under pains and penalties of perjury if they violate this sacred trust. 

Pardon me if I'm skeptical this is going to work. At some point, football players are by their very nature accepting of risk. Even if it's to their health and their lives. They're the cultural descendants of gladiators. Or boxers. Or motor sports drivers. I interviewed Michael Irving once and he said if hypothetically he'd suffered CTE and it cost him his life after his career was over, he'd still do it all over again. That he'd willingly give up his life for all the things his pro football career gave to his family. And I'm sure among those 2,500 showing up to work this week, the vast majority are willing to take their chances with the Covid. Let's just hope this non-solution actually works. But I'm with the smartest man alive when he has serious doubts about it.