As NFL Players, We Face Unknowns Just Like the Rest of the Country

In a guest column for The MMQB, twin brothers and New England Patriots teammates Devin and Jason McCourty discuss an NFL offseason focused on COVID-19 and social justice.
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February 4 seems like so long ago. That was the night the Kansas City Chiefs became Super Bowl Champions. A little over a month later, with COVID-19 spreading across the country, the world wondered: Would there be football again in 2020? State guidelines told people to stay inside and everything was shut down. No fear; football season was months away—it will get figured out. Players didn't care about football in March and April, everyone just wanted to be safe. We locked ourselves and our family members in our homes and said, “Let’s wait this out.” Time passed, and not much changed—and rarely did we get any answers. Then, on May 25, while so many people were at home staying safe, we all witnessed the horrid killing of George Floyd. The country went from a full standstill to an all-out uproar. Anger, sadness, heartbreak, justice and death became words we saw every day. Players became visible all across the country, and, again, football seemed so far away. In May and June, the question turned into, “How do we join the fight for social justice and equality for all?” Now, here we are in mid-July, and every player is thinking about football again. So, what exactly does the 2020 NFL player look like?

We remember walking off of the Disney Magic cruise ship on March 5, reminiscing about the incredible family vacation that had just taken place. A week later, there were cruise ships all around the world being quarantined at sea, not knowing when they’d be allowed out of the water. COVID-19 crippled our world and we are still in search of normalcy in this totally new environment. As NFL veterans of over a decade, we quickly found out that our offseason would be the furthest thing from normal. The realization that things were different first occurred during virtual meetings, when one of your kids could come running into the room dressed as Spiderman shooting webs at you. You may ask: What else does an offseason consist of for an NFL player during COVID-19? Attempting to wear a mask during one-on-one training sessions has been one of the toughest challenges we’ve faced. (Well, not really, when you compare it to trying to get your kid to sit still during their virtual Zoom class.) Or training all offseason with no equipment room, no training room, no hot/cold tub and a lack of massages or any other body work. The old saying adapt or die has been fully adopted by us as players—learning to work out in small groups, isolating at home away from family, studying and learning the playbook on our own. As a society and as players, we’ve all had to make sacrifices and find ways to make it work. Imagine being a 2020 NFL rookie who will start training camp without visiting his playing city or team facility at all. They’ll walk into the building on day one, not knowing where the cafeteria is, and have to trust that the things they learned virtually will place them in the right spot when the real practices start.

As the days roll past in July, every NFL player is scrolling through Twitter, finding out news about the upcoming season, wondering if there will even be a season. So many questions with virtually no answers, all three weeks removed from a potential start to training camp. As fear continues to grow for our nation, it is also being spoken about among us players. Will we have an option to opt out of the season? Will we be making our full salary? What if there is a COVID outbreak within the league? It's so hard to make a decision of whether we will play or not without knowing what the exact plan is. Nothing has been agreed upon when it comes to what the stadium will look like. Will we be able to have meetings in the building? Or will the meetings still be done virtually? Will testing be a few times a week or will it be every day? As players, how do we decide what is best for us and our families when we don’t know what we’re walking into? We preach player safety as being the foundation of our game all the time. Well, there’s no better time than now to make sure that is at the forefront of everything we do. We play a dangerous game and assume risk every time we step foot onto the field. We psych ourselves up to be these tough guys, where we play through injuries, and deal with the anxiety of performing on a daily basis and the uncertainty of our careers. But we have reached a point where there is no guidance, there is no wily old veteran to look up to when it comes to the circumstances we face today.

We all have a platform to use however we see fit to express ourselves. Back in 2016 we watched Colin Kaepernick sacrifice his career to kneel down for what he believed in. Since then we have witnessed players of different races joining the fight for equality in our nation. In the first week of June, we heard Roger Goodell say: “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League believe Black Lives Matter.” Players in a league who once had to fear losing their jobs if they became too vocal about black issues now have an even bigger platform. We don't think the league’s stance has made more players stand up and speak out. We do think the vivid image of George Floyd taking his last breath changed a lot of hearts around the world. Immediately, we saw players in the streets marching with others. We saw our peers leading rallies and leading conversations on major news outlets about how to change America. With the season approaching, you see every player trying to figure out how they will use their platform to make a positive impact. We recently saw DeSean Jackson post a message he probably would like to take back. Trying to empower black people, he used a quote that was just flat-out wrong. We must eliminate hate from the world in every way possible. Anti-Semitism is wrong, just like racism toward black people is wrong. With this newfound voice for players, we will see some stumble because it’s not always easy to determine where your voice fits in the world. The 2020 season will most likely feature men kneeling during the national anthem for the first time—some players and possibly coaches. We’ll also see more players writing op-eds, testifying at state houses and working in a number of other ways. Malcolm Jenkins picked up another job, getting hired by CNN as a contributor. Maybe Ben Watson will be inspired by Kanye West and add his name to the Presidential race. Ben: You would have our votes. If you just want to see guys play football, 2020 might be the year to take a break from the NFL. Guys have a burning passion for change, and nothing will get in the way.

So, the answer to that question from above, what exactly does the 2020 NFL player look like? We face a whole lot of unknowns, a whole lot of question marks, and overall are dealing with unsettling feelings about how to handle the two major topics that have hit our entire country hard this year. The year is only halfway done, so the verdict is still out on whether we can get some answers moving forward.

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