NFL opt-outs make for strange rosters

The official anthem of NFL preseason is “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” by The Clash.

As in should I play football in 2020 or should I opt out?

In the end, when the Thursday 4 p.m. deadline came around, some 66 players who could have been on teams this fall opted out of playing due to the COVID-19 pandemic because of their own health worries, concern for their families or underlying at-risk conditions.

This is the equivalent of 66 season-ending injuries, players not available to their teams. For the longest time, it appeared the Indianapolis Colts might not have a single coronavirus worry casualty, though when the names were tabulated, there were three goners from coach Frank Reich’s roster.

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]

The league gave players the option to skip the season in the face of the virus’ threat, and men who have had or do have Type 2 diabetes, cancer or other medical vulnerabilities made choices about their long-term health status. There is no social distancing on the football field, a sport of continuous contact.

Imagine the hit the Colts’ prospects would take if new free agent star quarterback Philip Rivers, who has eight children, decided his exposure was too great for his family. However, Rivers said he gave no thought to opting out on the season.

“There wasn’t any consideration,” he said in a recent interview with sportswriters. “I think like if you’re in a flu season or anything else, from a standpoint, be smart. I feel like we have to trust, be thankful, be safe and do the best we can.”

In March, Rivers, who will turn 39 in December, signed a one-year $25 million contract with the Colts. He said if he opted out of 2020, it would mean he was retiring, “which is nowhere on my mind.”

Safety Rolan Milligan, linebacker Skai Moore and cornerback Marvell Tell were the three Colts who chose the opt-out list. This was minimal compared to the New England Patriots, who saw eight players announce they will not play this season, several of them key members of the defense.

Verbally and publicly, the NFL, the teams and players who committed to playing at full salary and take whatever COVID-19 risks accompany their time on the field have offered little pushback to those who chose to go.

“So do I think that someone who does or someone that does consider to opt out, do I think they’re crazy?” Rivers said. “No. I think it is really up to each person and their family to do what is best for them.”

In a sport that encourages unity and togetherness perhaps more than any other major professional team sport, these were very much individual decisions with players talking to their bodies and to their spouses before making what was likely to be an agonizing call. The impact on their life and career could be long-term, and the pressure on the player to be right is immense.

Rising defensive star Darius Leonard pondered the opt-out question before any Colts took that route.

“I can just speak for myself,” Leonard said. “I just know what I love to do and what I want to do. Just have to continue to social distance, wash your hands, wear a mask, everything that the world is asking.”

These are men with coveted jobs that pay well, come with prestige, yet do not promise long careers because of physical demands and the high chance of injury.

While Rivers and Leonard did not seem borderline about choosing their paths, it seemed tackle Anthony Castonzo, who is playing, pondered the question closely. It also seemed how good the Colts be fed his thoughts.

Indianapolis did not make the playoffs in 2019, but between trades, the draft and free agency, the Colts have upgraded significantly and if not for the worldwide distraction of the virus might be generating more buzz in training camp.

“Obviously, you want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Castonzo said of the NFL’s efforts to conduct a season. “But after seeing all the precautions that are in place and weighing things out, it made sense to go ahead with the season and see what happens.”

Opt in or opt out, being paid $150,000 or $350,000 not to play or being paid millions to play, the NFL as a whole is waiting to see what happens.

Lew is the sports editor for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]