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NFL Opt-Outs Show How the Coronavirus Is Already Upending the League

On Monday and Tuesday, a string of players chose to prioritize their health and safety over football. This season was never going to be normal, and this week confirmed it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even before training camps began opening across the NFL, it was obvious the 2020 season would not be normal. Teams would need to take new precautions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, fan capacity in stadiums would be limited, the preseason wouldn’t be held, and lost revenue would affect the salary cap through at least 2024. Now, the immediate impact of the coronavirus is becoming increasingly apparent.

Last week, Chiefs starting guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first player to publicly opt out of the season. But the first wave of multiple opt-outs occurred Monday, when New England right tackle Marcus Cannon, offensive lineman Najee Toran, and fullback Danny Vitale; Washington defensive lineman Caleb Brantley; Dallas cornerback Maurice Canady; Seattle right guard Chance Warmack; and Baltimore return specialist De’Anthony Thomas decided to sit out the 2020 season. That same day, Major League Baseball’s restart hit a snag when at least 13 Miami Marlins players and coaches tested positive for COVID-19 during a series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

On Tuesday morning, more NFL players announced they intend to sit out the upcoming season:

  • Patriots running back Brandon Bolden
  • Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower
  • Patriots safety Patrick Chung
  • Eagles receiver Marquise Goodwin
  • Bears defensive lineman Eddie Goldman
  • Titans offensive tackle Anthony McKinney
  • Bills defensive tackle Star Lotulelei
  • Saints tight end Cole Wick
  • Broncos defensive lineman Kyle Peko
  • Texans defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes
  • Cowboys wide receiver Stephen Guidry
  • Vikings defensive lineman Michael Pierce
  • Ravens offensive tackle Andre Smith

That brings the current total of opt-outs to more than 20 players. Their decisions reinforce the idea that despite the NFL’s best efforts, the pandemic has affected and will continue to affect the league. In a statement released Monday, commissioner Roger Goodell conceded that “COVID-19 will continue to present a major challenge to nearly every area of American life. Football is no exception.”

August 4 marks the deadline for players to opt out of the 2020 season. Those who voluntarily sit out will receive a $150,000 stipend. Voluntary opt-outs must be under contract or subject to tender. Their contract will toll and will be applicable to the following year, but the player will not accrue a season, meaning they’ll return in 2021 on their 2020 salary. Players who are considered high-risk will receive $350,000. To be considered high-risk, a player must have a diagnosis of one of the conditions listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If eligible, a high-risk opt-out will earn an accrued season toward free agency and all benefits, including minimum salary for a credited season.

Players who are opting out have frequently cited health and family concerns. Hightower told NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport, “Me and my fiancée are just more concerned with the health of our family than football—especially the new addition to our family.”

There’s still much that is unknown about the novel coronavirus that has devastated the globe. The CDC lists “older adults” and “people with certain medical conditions” as those at increased risk for severe illness. The latter group includes “people of any age” who have cancer or are considered obese, with a body mass index of 30 or higher. Offensive and defensive linemen usually register BMIs above that, and many of the players who have opted out so far are linemen.

The CDC mentions those who are pregnant will be at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. Goodwin—whom Philadelphia acquired via a draft day trade with the 49ers—has a 5-month-old daughter at home. Before the NFL and NFLPA reached an agreement on an adjustment to the collective bargaining agreement, Cowboys star pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, whose wife is pregnant, voiced concern about showing up to Dallas’s facility. One of Monday’s opt-outs, Cannon, previously overcame a bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Thus far, the Patriots have lost the most contributors of any team. New England was already due for a major shift with Tom Brady’s 20-year tenure ending and the Cam Newton era set to begin. But with Newton under center and much of its defense intact, the team appeared to still be a contender in the AFC East. Opt-out decisions have halted those hopes. The Patriots will have to make due without veterans Hightower and Chung, massive losses for Bill Belichick’s squad. One or both of Hightower and Chung have been on the field for 92.6 percent of regular-season snaps and 96.7 percent of postseason snaps during the past five seasons, according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. Vitale, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract earlier this offseason, will not be around to lead the way for the Patriots rushing attack. Bolden will be missed in New England’s special teams unit. Cannon and backup lineman Toran won’t be around to block for Newton.

The NFL’s opt-out list will probably grow as the August 4 deadline nears and more players weigh the risk of potentially contracting the virus and/or exposing those around them to it. The league is still determined to kick off the season on September 10, but the latest surge of opt-outs shows that this season will look like none other in memory.