Bear Hugs and Bubbles: Why Some N.F.L. Players Opted Out

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When she is old enough, Philadelphia Eagles receiver Marquise Goodwin will teach his daughter, Marae, to put family first. He will say that she should prioritize the people she loves most when making decisions. He will share his own choice, made five months after she was born: He will sit out the 2020 N.F.L. season.

Picking family over football during the coronavirus pandemic, Goodwin was one of 68 players who the N.F.L. has listed as having opted out by Thursday’s deadline even as the league, despite surging transmission rates around the country, contends that the season will begin, as scheduled, on Sept. 10.

The players who opted out represent a microcosm of N.F.L. rosters: rookies and veterans, practice-squadders and starters, all of whom determined after careful consideration to lessen one risk while absorbing another. In order to keep themselves and their families safer, they will sacrifice the chance to compete for a Super Bowl, forgo showcasing themselves for more lucrative contracts and, in some cases, cede starting jobs and roster spots that may or may not be there next season.

As part of an agreement between the N.F.L. and the Players Association, players with one of the 15 medical conditions that the league regards as high risk for contracting the virus could earn $350,000 this year, while players who decided not to play will receive a $150,000 advance toward next year’s salary.

Half of the players who opted out are offensive and defensive linemen, who are in closest contact with other players during practices and games. Leo Koloamatangi, an offensive lineman on the Jets who opted out, said he was resigned to contracting the virus had he chosen to play.

“Where I play, I’m literally bear-hugging another creature on the other side of the ball every single play,” Koloamatangi, 26, said in an interview. “If that guy has any symptoms, I’m going to get them.” He added, “For myself, I couldn’t take those chances.”

Neither could Goodwin, 29, whose family bore a string of personal tragedies. He would not permit himself to perhaps cause another. His wife, Morgan, twice endured pregnancy complications, losing a prematurely born son in November 2017, and then, in November 2018, twin boys.

The first time, Goodwin elected to play the same day, Nov. 12, for the San Francisco 49ers, and after catching an 83-yard touchdown pass he blew a kiss to the heavens. He was with the team for a game in Tampa, Fla., the next year when Morgan woke up with contractions. She suggested he come home but never explicitly said she needed him to, knowing how seriously he took his career. He flew home, skipping the game, to be with her.

“I told myself at some point that I’ve got to hold it down for my family,” Goodwin said in an interview. “I can’t let work and the check and the money dictate decisions that I truly want to make.”

Goodwin had been expecting training camp to be pushed back and when it wasn’t he grew stressed about leaving his family, outside Dallas. His mother, Tamina, takes care of his younger sister, Deja, who has cerebral palsy, and Morgan’s mother looks after a niece and a nephew. If either Morgan or Marae fell ill there wouldn’t be a family member who could care for them. Then he heard that Kansas City Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the only medical doctor playing in the N.F.L., was opting out. Other players followed, and Goodwin felt more at peace with joining them.

“I’m always hesitant to make any serious moves because you never know how the N.F.L. will treat you, you know?” Goodwin said. “I was super excited because it was the first time in my life that I made a decision I’m comfortable living with the result of, as far as work is concerned.”

For Koloamatangi, choosing to opt out was easy in one sense: He wanted to protect his 9-month-old daughter, Aurora, and his stepfather, Sele, who has heart problems, from the virus that killed two close relatives and infected another.

But other, more complex components factored into what he called “the hardest decision of my life.” Koloamatangi has spent his three N.F.L. seasons bouncing between the practice squad and active rosters of the Detroit Lions and Jets but has yet to appear in a regular season game. He and his agent assessed the professional impact and Koloamatangi deliberated with his wife, Athena, over the financial burden the family would assume if he didn’t play. By taking the opt out, he would, in effect, be making about a fraction of his $750,000 salary — “an uncomfortable difference.”

“I had to take my losses and look my wife in the eyes,” Koloamatangi said. “I did it to ensure the safety in my home.”

Koloamatangi and his family have been sheltering in place in California since March. The rising infection rates in New Jersey, where the Jets train and play, prompted the team to announce that it would play regular season home games without fans in MetLife Stadium or at training camp.

Koloamatangi said he had spoken with a union rep every day since mid-March, lobbing questions that he wanted answered. He knew it was unfeasible for the N.F.L. to enter a so-called “bubble,” as the N.B.A. and N.H.L. have. But as he and Athena debated their options, he wondered why the N.F.L. refused to push back camp and the season, or introduce additional safety measures — such as gloves or helmets with masks — that would further mitigate his risk of infection. As it stands, the N.F.L.’s testing protocol calls for players to be tested every day for the first two weeks of training camp, and then every other day after that.

Ultimately, Koloamatangi said, he didn’t feel confident enough to risk the travel and contact that come with playing the game he loves.

“I’m happy my workplace will be safe, but what about when I have to go out and perform my job?” he said. “What are you doing to ensure that when I make full contact with the guy next to me, I’m not going to contract the virus? Imagine going through an entire summer understanding that you’re going to have to go to work at some point, but your job doesn’t say anything about your work conditions until two weeks ago.”

Kyle Peko, a defensive tackle on the Denver Broncos, reached a similar conclusion. Peko, 27, has moderate to severe asthma, among the medical conditions the league regards as high risk. He has two young children and a wife, Giuliana, who he said has been cancer-free for seven months.

Their every discussion on opting out focused on the same question: How could he play football without putting himself at risk?

Undrafted out of Oregon State in 2016, Peko has lived on the margins the last four seasons, playing in 13 games. Normally he treasures this time — rejoining teammates, preparing for camp, battling for a spot. On July 26, two days before he was to report to camp, Peko had his bags packed and his truck gassed up for the 15-hour drive from their home in La Habra, Calif.

That day, he said, he received an email from the union detailing his options, and when he realized he could keep his family safe without losing his job, he did not hesitate. He spoke to Broncos officials and coaches, all of whom, he said, respected his choice.

“Trying to go back and play football during this pandemic,” Peko said in an interview, “it was just hard to wrap my head around putting my family at risk when I could do my part in trying to put this pandemic to rest.”

Instead, Peko will be taking the 12 credits he needs to complete his college degree. Koloamatangi said he can concentrate on his two ventures in Hawaii — a nonprofit that provides resources for people and business affected by the pandemic, and a grocery delivery platform for older adults. Goodwin, meantime, can’t wait to bond more with Marae.

Sometimes, safe at home, when she sneezes or coughs, he startles. Then he remembers what he did, and he thinks to himself, “Dang, I’m glad I didn’t put her in that situation.”

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