The deadline for NFL players to opt out of the 2020 regular season due to health and safety concerns stemming from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic was Thursday at 4 p.m.
No Steelers players decided on that option.
That’s good news if you’re the Steelers, I suppose. After all, football is often a war of attrition, and with the sport being such a physically high-risk proposition as it is, the team certainly didn’t want to begin training camp already knowing it would be without one or several players—some of whom may have been very important cogs in the machine.
But even if one or several Steelers players had opted out, that would have been understandable to coaches, teammates and fans.
At least I’d like to think so.
As Thursday’s deadline approached, and it started to become a reality that no Steelers players would sit out the season, the general sentiment seemed to be one of relief and celebration that these guys had decided to band together and play for one another, with the ultimate goal obviously being a championship.
In fact, I witnessed some of those exact opinions being expressed on social media (I know, never a good idea to read social media). Perhaps I’m virtue signaling (this is a new thing people say about other people on social media, so I hope I’m using it right), but I’m not so sure I feel comfortable acting all celebratory and excited about the Steelers being one of the few teams who didn’t have anyone opt out.
Why? Because what would have been the reaction to any Steelers opt outs? Would there have been overt disappointment? Would people have called these players selfish? I’d like to think not, but I’ve seen other players lash out at their fans on social media for calling them selfish, such as Bills’ cornerback Tre’Davious White, who took to Twitter to voice his displeasure:
“Crazy that me choosing my family’s wellbeing over a game comes with so called fans attacking and questioning me and saying I’m selfish. No you guys are selfish for thinking that football is bigger than life. Oh by the way my girl’s grandfather passed from COVID. U understand now?”
I’d hope that cries of selfishness wouldn’t have been directed at, for example, defensive lineman Cam Heyward, who suffers from asthma, or running back James Conner, who is a cancer survivor.
It would have been disappointing had either player opted out, but certainly understandable, considering both are clearly in the higher risk category.
But what about players who aren’t at a higher risk?
As crazy and perhaps disingenuous as this may come off as, if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, just returning after a forgettable 2019 that was snuffed out by major elbow surgery, had decided to opt out, I could see that.
In fact, Roethlisberger was one of the first Steelers who came to mind when I was thinking of players who may have chosen to sit out. Here’s a guy who seriously contemplated retirement as recently as three offseasons ago. He decided to keep playing, but there was an image from the 2017 training camp of Roethlisberger embracing his young daughter, a little girl that didn’t see him as a multi-Super Bowl-winning quarterback whose franchise depended on his performance—she just knew him as Daddy.
With a wife and three very young children, Roethlisberger has clearly evolved into a family man at this point of his career. Despite being 38, despite wanting to bounce back from his elbow injury and prove the doubters wrong, and despite a strong desire to win more Super Bowls before the window to that and his career shut for good, a small part of me was expecting Roethlisberger to opt out of the season.
This obviously would have been a critical blow to the Steelers and their chances to compete in 2020, but who would have looked worse: Roethlisberger or those who may have called him selfish?
Since it is 2020, there probably would have been strong cases made for both, with former players, current players, media members and fans all taking up sides.
They might be doing that right now with Tre White and any other prominent and/or important players who have decided to sit out the 2020 season.
There is a lot of pressure on your average NFL player to not only succeed, but to simply stay healthy enough to get out on the field and compete. Why? If coaches feel that they can’t depend on you, you likely won’t be long in the league. This is why guys play hurt. This is why they often put their bodies through so much during the week just to be ready to play.
Whatever it takes, get yourself ready to be out there with your teammates. They are depending on you.
This is why Hines Ward once publicly criticized Roethlisberger for his decision to skip an important prime-time game against the Ravens with a concussion. Ward said that if it were him, he’d be out there competing with his teammates. This was back in 2009 when head trauma wasn’t taken quite as seriously as it soon would be.
How many players—before and since 2009—have chosen not to report concussion-like symptoms for fear of possibly losing their starting spot or even their job?
It’s one thing for players to decide in the moment not to opt out because they want to be out there on the field with their guys trying to help them win a title this year. But what if, during the season, someone wakes up with a sore throat or the chills? Will he report it to his superiors, or will he keep it to himself for fear of missing time and letting his teammates down?
Yes, these players are and will continue to be tested for COVID on a regular basis, but as we’ve discovered over the past few months, it doesn’t take very long for this virus to spread.
What I’m getting at with all of this is, yes, it’s great that no Steelers players have opted out, but I just hope they didn’t feel the pressure of “team” as they were making their decision.
There are few things more personal than one’s own health, and I hope each and every Steelers player strongly considered his individual situation before putting his hand in the pile.
And I’d like to think we’d all understand if someone wanted to keep his hand out of that pile in 2020.