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Should NFL players get hazard pay?

Athletes are taking all the risk. They should be protected

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In this photo illustration the American football league The... Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As we get closer and closer to the start of training camp, it seems more and more evident that we’re going to get an NFL season despite the very real global pandemic happening in the world right now. A pandemic that despite our collective hopes, isn’t going away. On Tuesday the U.S. reported 58,146 new cases. Which is a single day record.

This is where we’re at in July. Who knows where we’ll be in September when the season is slated to begin. What we do know is that there has been countless athletes in America who have tested positive for COVID-19. Just in the past few weeks NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson tested positive, several WWE wrestlers and employees tested positive, 31 MLB players tested positive and Orlando Magic Guard Markelle Fultz tested positive. The latter is one of 25 NBA players who have tested positive thus far.

One of the commonly held misconceptions is that young people or people in good shape are not affected by the virus. But there are studies that show that this is not the case. While symptoms may not be as bad—or present at all—one study suggests that even if you’re asymptomatic, your lungs can still be damaged. Hell, Von Miller—one of the NFL’s premier athletes—already had to go through it and talked about how hard the virus hit his lungs.

What’s even scarier is that we’re still learning new things about this virus everyday, because, like most things, our understanding of the situation is continuing to evolve.

So what does that mean for the NFL, in particular its players? If each team is carrying 55 players and there’s 32 teams, that’s 1,760 players taking a risk every day from camp until Week 17.And that doesn’t even take into account increased training camp rosters or practice squads. Then you have to factor in that those 1,760 players have parents, spouses, significant others and kids. They’re not only risking their health, they’re risking the health everyone they love.

Former Lions corner Darius Slay raised a good point on Tuesday night that should have everyone thinking.

I fully realize there’s going to be a lot of resistance to this idea. After all, Darius Slay, for example, just signed a mega-deal that will pay him just over $50 million. That’s a lot of money.

Look, I get it. There’s a lot of people in the country that are working every single day without hazard pay, and they’re not making anywhere near this amount of money to do it. They’re also risking their health and the health of their families, too. I think everyone should get hazard pay. I think everyone shouldn’t have to worry about a medical bill crippling their finances for years to come. I’m a human being at the end of the day. Part of me is totally with you. These guys are millionaires. They can handle it. Plus they play a violent game and they’re well compensated for it. Isn’t that already hazard pay?

But on the flip side of that coin, these guys are also humans. And, just like us, if they get this virus, it could affect their ability to do their job and provide for their families. And although the NFL is taking as many precautions as possible to present a safe workplace environment, nothing can prevent the increased risk of having to come into close contact with other people as an integral part of their job. These players will be touching everyone and everything on game day.

Just because they have a lot of money does not mean they’re not taking a risk that could have long-lasting damage. We mentioned earlier that even some asymptomatic patients are showing lung damage. Imagine being a young player on a rookie deal or an undrafted free agent who gets the virus and has lung damage. You’re not Darius Slay. You don’t have a mega contract. If you lose the ability to do your job, that’s more than likely it for you.

So with that in mind, there should be some sort of protection for these players. Maybe it’s hazard pay. Maybe the players get a bump in pay for the 2020 season for taking all the risks. Or maybe the NFL can make sure their players are financially protected in some way so players don’t lose out on money or opportunities if they test positive and have to miss time. The good news is that they sort of are protected.

The NBA has a force majeure clause in players contracts that literally uses the word epidemic in it. This clause allows teams to stop paying players in the case of act of god or of course, an epidemic such as COVID-19. In the NFL’s case, the only way a team can stop pay is if players go on strike. This puts the ball solely in the players’ courts. If the NFL were to cancel its season due to the pandemic, players will still be due their salary.

In addition to that,
on Wednesday night it was announced that the NFL and the NFLPA were having discussions about players being able to opt out of playing in 2020 if they or a family member have pre-existing conditions or the player is too concerned about the pandemic to want to risk it.

It is not yet known how that would affect the players’ contract, but with the NFL’s lack of a force majeure clause, you have to believe the ball is still in their court here.

NFL players won’t be the only ones taking risks when the season starts. There will be plenty of other people there, too. From head coaches down to the janitors that clean the building, there are going to be a lot of people in one place at one time, and everyone is going to be touching everything.

Make no mistake, the NFL is taking precautions during the season. Everyone will be tested three times a week, many areas are restricted to only players and staff, masks must be worn except during athletic activities, media has been limited to a certain amount of reporters and in-person player interviews are restricted for the time being and each facility must be cleaned and certified before they’re able to open. That’s just to few things in the NFL’s lengthy protocol guide. This is all great protection measures in theory. But sometimes things get missed and rules get bent. There’s just no way to 100 percent guarantee player and staff safety.

The NFL has yet to release anything on how many members of team staff can attend the games or be on the field yet, but the ones who are there should also be receiving some sort of hazard pay for the risks that they’ll be taking.

There is gigantic hurdle here, however. On Tuesday, the NFL proposed to hold 35 percent of player salaries in escrow to help manage costs for the 2020 season. This would mean the NFL would withhold money from players to keep things afloat during the pandemic and pay that money to them at a later date.

While at the moment this is nothing more than a proposal—and one the players are already scoffing at—it shows that the league is concerned they’re going to miss out a lot of potential income due to empty stadiums. If that’s the feeling right now, it would be nearly impossible to get owners to pay out more for those 1,760 players and thousands of other team employees. The cost of such a thing would be extravagant, to say the least.

Some might counter that the NFL is a TV-based league. After all, the NFL paid each team $255 million from TV deals in 2018 (and that total will only increase in future years). The Lions pulled in a total revenue of $385 million that year. That means that the TV deal was almost 63 percent of the team’s revenue. Meanwhile, ticket sales were responsible for about 14 percent. The team’s operating cost that year was $73 million.

I’m not saying that every leftover dollar is liquid. It’s not. But let’s not act like the NFL would go broke by shelling out a little more to their players.

In addition to all of that, the NFL increased the size of its lending facility in May to help offset the costs of running games in empty stadiums. The league will allow teams to borrow up to $500 million. That’s an increase from the previous $350 million.

The league and its teams are setting themselves up to be as financially protected as possible. That doesn’t mean they’d be willing to part with any extra money to pay their players’ hazard pay, but if the teams are nearing fail-proof in these trying times, there should be no reason to not protect the players as well. Holding 35 percent of their salary doesn’t seem like the right move to make if they truly care about their players.

It should be interesting to see where, if anywhere at all, something like this goes in the near future. Again, I want to reiterate that I fully understand the risks that essential workers are taking every single day. Many, if not all, of my friends and family members are those very people. I fully believe that there should be hazard pay all around. I also believe that should include athletes and those who work in professional sports.

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