Will NFL step up, ensure 2020 season has everything it needs?

Jul 9, 2020, 6:27 AM

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks ahead of the first round at the NFL football draft in Nashvil...

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks ahead of the first round at the NFL football draft in Nashville, Tenn. In a memo sent to the 32 teams Monday, April 6, 2020, and obtained by The Associated Press, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell outlined procedures for the April 23-25 draft. The guidelines include no group gatherings. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, FIle)

(AP Photo/Steve Helber, FIle)

Pandemic football is risky business:

Heaving breaths filling up a huddle. Barking coaches and spittle flying with every primal scream. Bodies crashing with intimate violence. One gang tackle capable of shutting down an entire league.

No professional sport is more dangerous during a global catastrophe. And the players know it.

Will the league pay for their services?

Welcome to the day of reckoning for the NFL. Until now, Roger Goodell and the owners who employ him have collectively authored the perfect offseason. They staged a heartwarming stay-at-home draft. Marquee players switched teams with enormous chips on their shoulders. The upcoming season is stocked with conflict and drama.

Will the league pay the price to finish the job?

The bill will be enormous. The NFL must willingly embrace paying full salaries to its players, even without fans in the stands. It must cancel all preseason games in 2020, understanding that once exhibition football has been established as non-essential, it’s never coming back. The scam will be over for good.

Finally, the NFL should award a Super Bowl bonus to every player in the league, rewarding everyone for pushing a season through a pandemic to its natural conclusion. Anything less, and NFL owners are playing with a fire they can’t handle. So:

The league needs to be brutally honest and generous in its approach, making a blood oath with the players for their time, health and commitment during a pandemic. Treat them like gladiators. Shower them with praise. Give them everything they need. Absolutely no haggling over money.

The league needs to recognize this is not Gene Upshaw’s union. Modern-day players are no longer mute or weak, no longer content with wealthy obedience. Black players represent more than 70% of the NFL. They are devoted torchbearers for the Black Lives Matter movement. They are stronger and more prideful than ever and will not budge on anything of substance. Not now. Not when they are standing for all of it at once, for everyone to see.

The NFL needs to understand the gravity of the moment. Teams might lose a lot of short-term money if forced to play in empty stadiums, unable to sell tickets and beer to their fan bases. But in the long term, there will be priceless value accrued by simply carrying on, restoring a sense of normalcy in America by producing a Super Bowl champion, symbolically proving the NFL can’t be stopped. Not even when a pandemic rolls into town.

College football doesn’t have a chance. They have no leadership. They are relying on our student-athletes to compete while simultaneously tasked with protecting our student-athletes from outside harm. They can’t cut a clean bargain with those who must produce the on-field product.

The NFL is different. It’s a league of mercenaries, a fraternity of athletes who already sacrifice their limbs, their joints and their brains to the game. Most are painfully aware that the NFL steals away their golden years, making retirement a brutal, bitter proposition. And most wouldn’t change a thing.

This is why the NFL must be honest and transparent in upcoming negotiations. They must do more than willingly excuse those who do not want to play in 2020. They must reward all that choose to play, treating them with the respect they deserve.

I’ll guarantee this much: If NFL owners show real heart, players will respond. These are America’s most courageous athletes, men who play for camaraderie and glory, through blood and guts, for reasons that transcend a football field. They adore the admiration and respect given to them by the general public, the stuff that is normally reserved for true American heroes. They are keenly aware that only a small percentage of the population can do what they do for a living, and that knowledge electrifies their soul.

NFL players will gladly serve this country by playing football in dangerous times and in times of need. But they must be asked nicely. Without the pay cuts and paper cuts of greed.

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Will NFL step up, ensure 2020 season has everything it needs?