Five months before the regular season starts, the N.F.L. and its players are facing their first clash over playing in the pandemic, with players for nearly half of the teams vowing to skip voluntary off-season workouts.
Players on 14 of the league’s 32 teams, including the Giants, the Jets and the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said in statements released by the N.F.L. Players Association that they would not participate in the workouts scheduled to begin Monday because of concerns it would be unsafe to gather.
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady was among players who spoke out to the news media and on social media.
“We feel very strongly about the game, the short- and long-term health of the players, and there is no game without strong, healthy players,” Brady said in a conference call with The New York Times and the union’s leadership. “People within the league may think, ‘Oh, let’s just get back to business, let’s go back to what we’ve usually done.’ But I think it’s really smart for people and players to think, ‘Is this the best possible way to do things?’ Not, ‘Is this tolerable, but is it the best way to deal with the situation?’”
The N.F.L. declined to comment.
The union has called for a virtual off-season — essentially players working out on their own away from team complexes — similar to what took place in 2020. Although a nationwide vaccine campaign is underway, the union argues that the danger is still high.
Last season, the N.F.L. shifted its off-season program to a virtual format, with the only in-person work happening at training camps in August. This spring, the union asked the league to use a similar format, while allowing for a mandatory minicamp in June. The league declined, citing protocols that it said would allow the workouts to occur safely.
That prompted the players to mobilize. J.C. Tretter, a center for the Cleveland Browns and the president of the union, wrote an open letter to members with DeMaurice Smith, the union executive director, encouraging players not to attend.
The league and the union signed a new collective bargaining agreement in 2020, stipulating that off-season workouts were optional, which Smith and Tretter’s letter emphasized. Players then organized calls and team meetings to discuss their stances, some choosing to collectively release statements.
The nine-week off-season regimen, which the league published on Wednesday, consists of three phases that gradually increase the level of physical interaction. The first phase will be virtual, with chances for players to work out in the team weight rooms. The next phase allows for on-field work at a gradual pace before traditional full-speed, organized team activities and the minicamp conclude the program.
Last season, despite virus outbreaks at team facilities and a flurry of schedule changes, the N.F.L. played all 256 regular-season games and a full playoff slate, culminating with the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
The N.F.L., which had put in place protocols such as regular testing, mask wearing and social distancing at team facilities, reported that 262 players and 463 team personnel tested positive for the coronavirus, yielding a 0.08 percent positive rate. Similar protocols would be in place this off-season.
But Smith said those procedures did not apply to the current situation. More players will be in team buildings as they vie for a spot on the active roster, increasing the possibility for transmission. Others may not live in the city where the team is based during the spring and summer — Tretter said he was one of about six players who had entered the Browns’ facility this off-season — and travel will create chances for exposure.
Players should not need to jeopardize their health for optional workouts, unlike during the regular season when they would need to be present daily, Smith said.
“It’s balancing necessary versus unnecessary risks,” Smith said. “Our guys have to be there from week to week to compete at the level that our fans want them to compete on Sunday. Off-season workouts are something we know that is not needed for a successful season.”
Data compiled by the players association show 172 concussions were reported in 2020, a 30 percent drop from the average of 247 concussions reported per year over the last five seasons. Missed-time injuries, defined as injuries sustained that affect a player’s availability during the season, dropped to 2,716, a 23 percent decrease from the five-season average of 3,524.
Tretter argued that those statistics show it is in the N.F.L.’s best interest to continue last season’s template, something Brady agreed with.
“If we want to make the game better, we have to continue to make better year-round choices as individuals, as teams, as a league.” Brady said.
Tretter said that the workouts had “completely lost the definition of voluntary” and that some players might feel forced to go.
“There’s an expectation that you’re just supposed to show up and put up with whatever the N.F.L. asks of you,” Tretter said. “Guys are remembering now that they have a choice to attend.”
Still, some view the off-season programs as beneficial. More than 200 players could receive financial bonuses for attending off-season workouts, according to OvertheCap.com, a perk included in their contracts. Teams have discretion to qualify what counts as a workout, including whether they want a player to attend physically or virtually.
The face-to-face interaction can build camaraderie between new players, and offers those on the fringe of the roster a chance to impress coaches early.
Leigh Steinberg, a longtime agent who represents Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, said he sided with the union, but would advise any client to make the best individual decision.
“When they call for advice, it’s a personal choice,” Steinberg said. “It’s predicated on their position with the team, how secure they feel in their position and how much work they really need.”