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Player Opt-Outs Are None of Our Business

When it comes to a decision as personal as choosing not to play the 2020 NFL season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, onlookers have no right to criticize.

Access to our favorite players has improved to the point where we feel it socially acceptable to weigh in on every major decision in their lives. We comment on baby pictures and engagement photos like hawkish in-laws. We criticize their personal political stances like lurking Facebook uncles. We absolutely feel free to point out perceived shortcomings in their play, exorcizing the Bad Sports Parent that resides inside all of us.

All of that is (mostly) harmless, well and good. Or, in the eyes of the modern, privacy-starved athlete, simply part of the job with which they are forced to live.

On Tuesday, we got a glimpse of where that connection and comfortability should end. A wave of high-profile NFL players has begun announcing their plans to opt out of the 2020 NFL season due to the facts that COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the United States, and being in daily, sweaty, gasping-for-breath-close contact with up to 90 people a day doesn’t sound like an ideal situation.

Players with a medical “high-risk” opt-out like Marcus Cannon and Michael Pierce, alongside players like Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Star Lotulelei, Dont'a Hightower and Patrick Chung made their decisions to not play in 2020 public over the past few days, exposing their social media accounts to a swarm of anonymous opinion-havers who, from the safety of their @TomG9999823271324887765 perch, feel it necessary to criticize a decision that is noble at best and, at the least, completely none of our business.

This virus has exposed yet another societal chasm in how we view the world and who we choose to listen to. At this point, it’s not an argument worth having, simply a caveat that needs to be added. But when it comes to decisions like these made on a personal level, decisions that could affect the quality of someone’s life both now and far in the future, there is no ground to stand on. This goes beyond the outer reaches of what we are able to speak about.

Sports were supposed to be the reward at the end of this hellish stretch of American history and yet, like everything else, some of us wanted dessert first and insisted on cramming in NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL action before the virus was contained, or even before it stopped spiking across the country. The result has been this patchwork slog. Empty stadiums. Mass confusion. Scared, scattered players voting from a six-foot distance about whether or not they should travel to the next game.

Who can blame an NFL player staring down the prospect of countless fits and starts from saying no thanks? What about the sports world now seems inviting or fun or enjoyable?

Here’s an exercise that should hopefully bring some perspective: Pick someone, anyone, and scroll through their mentions and comments on social media. We ask athletes to be available to us, to sacrifice their bodies, to eat and pray like we do, to vote the way we vote, to express themselves the way that we express ourselves, to dress how we dress, celebrate how we celebrate and play like we believe we would have played if our lives depended on it. We can rationalize it all away in our heads easily by saying that they make millions and that this is the other side of the coin, when in reality we know that’s not true. Their careers are far shorter. Their medical expenses are much higher. In order to play at a high level, a good player once told me, you would net roughly 40% of your paycheck with the rest going to various tentacles in the operation.

They absorb all of this and still perform; still manage to take us away from our own fears and stressors for a few hours each day when in reality, they might be living in their own.

How fair is it to up the ante now, and to demand they play through a pandemic too? What does that say about us if we can't agree on that? 

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