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The NFLPA Has Set Up a Whisteblower Hotline to Report Health and Safety Violations

With players now back in their team facilities, the NFLPA has created an avenue to hold teams accountable on health and safety agreements. The NFL says it fully embraces the idea.

As NFL training camps begin in earnest this week, with thousands of players returning to their team facilities for meetings, workouts and walkthroughs—not to mention daily COVID-19 testing—the NFL Players Association has established a whistleblower hotline for its members to confidentially report potential violations of NFL/NFLPA health and safety protocol related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our player affairs staff is taking the health and safety of players seriously,” said George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs. “We set this up to ensure players felt comfortable at their workplace, but also to ensure they know we would act if they didn’t feel safe.”

Although it will double as a general help desk of sorts for “any COVID-related questions that the players might have,” Atallah said, the telephone number is expected to primarily serve as a clearinghouse for concerns about teams not adhering to their NFLPA-approved infectious disease emergency response (IDER) plans. This could be anything from team staffers not wearing masks in meetings, to locker room stalls not spaced at safe social distances, to an overly crowded weight room.

Once a complaint comes into the hotline, which is being monitored by NFLPA staffers after launching Wednesday afternoon, the union can then dispatch investigators to inspect the facility in question. Under extreme circumstances, as part of its return-to-play agreement with the league, the NFLPA even has the authority to shut the facility down until the issue is corrected, according to Atallah. (The NFLPA is also free to make random, unannounced spot checks throughout the season to ensure compliance.)

“We embrace the idea of a confidential hotline for players which can be used to report any issue. They should report any violations or concerns they have,” NFL vice president of communications Brian McCarthy wrote in an email, adding that “[t]eam staff are required to promptly report any potential violations to their individual team infection control officer and also the NFL league office.”

Such reports will be jointly investigated by the NFL and NFLPA, according to McCarthy, and “[c]lubs are strictly prohibited from retaliating, in any way, against any person for reporting a violation of these protocols (regardless of whether the report is proven to be accurate).” As part of the NFL/NFLPA agreement, team personnel such as coaches, medical staffers and athletic trainers are subject to the same league-imposed discipline as players for violations of COVID-19 protocol. Declining to put on a mask can net a maximum fine of $14,650, as can refusing to maintain physical distancing.

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Such a tip line is not without precedent, as the NBA established one in July to ensure everyone is following the rules in its Disney World bubble. Additionally, Yahoo! recently reported on the existence of NFL team-operated numbers that any employee can theoretically call, though the NFLPA’s version is limited to players only. For a league like the NFL that plans to proceed with its usual travel schedule, such a hotline could be even more important considering that team employees won’t be living inside of a closed bubble system.

Of course, any whistleblower system is only useful as long as people are willing to speak up.

“I’ll be interested to hear how often the whistleblower line is used, because it probably doesn’t feel good to feel like you may be ratting out a fellow player or coach or friend,” said Zachary Binney, an Emory epidemiologist whose doctoral dissertation focused on NFL injuries. “But I think it’s good to create a culture of mutual accountability where everybody feels like they’re pulling in the same direction and everybody is in an alliance with one goal, and that is to keep COVID-19 under control.”

This sentiment was echoed by one NFC veteran, who hadn’t yet received notice about the hotline when reached early Wednesday afternoon but agreed to speak about its potential. “I think it gives an opportunity for guys to voice their concerns anonymously and not feel like they’re getting pressured from the team,” the player said. “At the end of the day, everyone has to come together as an NFL family. If we want to do this thing, if we want to have a full season, guys are going to have to not be selfish and be able to do what they’re asking us to do. Without accountability on a football team, there’s not usually good results on the field. Same goes for this situation we’re in.”

As the NFL plows ahead toward its Sept. 10 opener between the Texans and Super Bowl-champion Chiefs, though, some members of the football workforce are simply concerned with putting themselves in a situation that necessitates the existence of the hotline in the first place. Through Wednesday morning, according to Atallah, nearly 60 players had informed the NFLPA of their intentions to opt out of the 2020 season as a result of COVID-19, whether voluntarily or due to a high-risk health condition.

One such player was Tampa Bay Buccaneers starting left tackle Donovan Smith, who posted a 331-word explanation of his decision on Instagram, including the following: “How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferal of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? How can I make sure that I don’t bring COVID-19 back to my household? Yes, we can get tested everyday, but if it takes 24 hours to get my results, how can I know each day that I am not spreading this virus or contracting it? ... There are too many ‘hows’ that have yet to be answered to ease player concerns and ensure the safety of not only myself, but also my family.”

As Smith notes, it might be next to impossible to eliminate the risk of exposure for such large rosters during the 2020 season. But at least those who do choose to participate will now have an avenue to help hold their colleagues accountable and, ideally, keep their workplaces a little bit safer in the process.

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