Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Lerentee McCray may not be a huge name in the NFL, but when he discusses why he opted out of playing this fall, his reasons aren’t unlike those of the other 68 NFL players who’ve decided to sit out this season because of COVID-19.
Players had until Thursday to elect not to play, and many across the league were surprised by what they considered a high number of opt-outs.
“I looked at my son. I looked at my family, and I just didn’t think it was worth it,” said McCray, a seven-year veteran. “I could catch it and bring it home to them. Or I can get it and even if it doesn’t kill me, it could destroy my career long-term. I feel really weird not playing football right now but can’t. I can’t risk doing something so dangerous and maybe hurting the people I love.”
While the number of players sitting out isn’t particularly large for a league with approximately 2,000, it was surprising that bigger names, like Patriots linebacker and three-time Super Bowl winner Dont’a Hightower and four-time Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley of the Jets, decided to skip this season.
George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFLPA, said one reason the players opted out is because they felt they had a financial cushion. Most players will receive at least $150,000 this season despite sitting.
“Frankly it’s a testament to the strength of the opt-outs we negotiated,” Atallah said. “Guys don’t feel pressured to play.”
He added: “One trend we [also] noticed is guys opting out doing it for their families.”
Those players seemed to boil their decisions down to two simple factors: not wanting to endanger loved ones and friends; and the financial allowances letting them make a tough decision somewhat easier.
The money given to players who chose to opt out was essentially broken down into two tiers.
The NFL and the union used the Centers for Disease Control guidelines to determine if players had conditions that put them at high-risk if they contracted COVID-19—conditions that include liver disease, diabetes, chronic heart and kidney disease and sickle cell, among others. Those players received a $350,000 stipend and will receive credit for the 2020 season as if they played.
Players that opted out voluntarily, without an medical exemption, will receive a $150,000 salary advance or loan that would technically need to be paid back if they were never to play again. Those voluntarily opting out will not receive a credited season toward their years of service.
One thing COVID-19 did was force some players, conditioned to play through serious injuries and even through head trauma, to realize the virus was an entirely different threat.
“This isn’t a broken leg or a busted knee,” said McCray. “This is far more serious. That’s why players are opting out. They’re taking in all the information and see how high the risk is.”
If there’s no COVID-19 vaccine this entire process could happen again next season. The NFL and union could craft another emergency addendum, and the players skipping this year could do it again.
McCray said he’ll be watching the Jaguars and the rest of the NFL this year and hopes none of the players regret their decision to play.
“I obviously wish them the best,” he said. “I hope everyone stays healthy. I’m afraid some players might end up saying to themselves, ‘I didn’t sign up to fight this virus.’”