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tara sullivan

What an agonizing decision NFL players are faced with

Patrick Chung is one of six Patriots (as of Tuesday) to opt out of the 2020 season.
Patrick Chung is one of six Patriots (as of Tuesday) to opt out of the 2020 season.Al Bello/Getty Images

Patrick Chung spoke of a pregnant fiancée, an asthmatic son, and an aging father.

Marquise Goodwin put his infant daughter in front of the camera.

Devin Funchess wrote of close family members and how he was thinking of their welfare above his own.

Three NFL veterans, three different stories. But whether it was Chung on “CBS This Morning,” Goodwin on Twitter, or Funchess on Instagram, the conclusion was the same: They are opting out of the 2020 NFL season because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

We know, of course, that Chung is one of three longtime Patriots who won’t play this season, along with Dont’a Hightower and Marcus Cannon, the three starters also joined by Brandon Bolden, Danny Vitale, and Najee Toran. Like Goodwin, acquired via trade by the Eagles this offseason, or Funchess, a similarly reliable wide receiver for the Packers, concern for at-risk family members at home prompted a decision that has been reached by dozens of others across the league, each making headlines as training camps begin to open.

Who knows if there are more to come? The days between now and the negotiated Aug. 4 deadline for players to decide will show whether the current group consists of relative outliers or represents the tip of an opt-out iceberg.

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What an agonizing decision it must be.

For months, this pandemic has stripped us bare, stealing loved ones, shuttering businesses, closing schools, isolating family. Our wells of empathy have been tapped beyond measure, but thankfully, the foundation of the human spirit grants us infinite amounts of these most important emotions. Empathy for those choosing between their livelihoods and their health concerns is among them, and these athletes deserve their share.

Of course, they are far from alone, and from the perspective of pure finances, they are buoyed by salary riches that essential workers like grocery clerks, health-care professionals, and teachers are not. But players should not be judged on their paychecks alone. With career windows that close quickly and often cruelly, they understand the risk of walking away midstream.

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If Chung described the decision as “tough,” and he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion with 12 years of experience, can you imagine how it might be for younger players?

Patrick Chung is planning to sit out the 2020 season.
Patrick Chung is planning to sit out the 2020 season.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

That was the point he, Funchess, and Goodwin tried to make while sharing their personal reasoning.

“I mean, of course it’s a tough decision,” Chung said. “You want to play football. I’m in the latter end of my career and I wanted to play football. But when it comes down to it, I feel that money’s not that important.

“My family — I’ve got a girlfriend that’s pregnant and a baby girl coming soon, my son has a little asthma, my dad is 75 years old — I felt this was the best decision to keep everyone safe. I don’t think it’s fair to them.”

From Funchess: “Family is first. Always has been. Always will be. In such unpredictable times, it’s been one of the constants on my mind as I’ve worked through one of the toughest decisions of my life.

“My closest family members have experienced the life-threatening impact of COVID-19 first-hand, and for their and my own safety, I’ve decided to opt out of the upcoming NFL season. This was not a decision I took lightly but it’s what is best for my family and myself at this time.”

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And from Goodwin, whose premature son died in 2017 and who lost unborn twins in 2018, “This right here, this my reason y’all,” he said, pointing to his 5-month-old daughter. “She is the reason I’m opting out for the season. After choosing football so many times I feel I’m inclined to make the right decision by finally choosing my family first.

“I won’t take the chance of experiencing another loss because of my selfish decision making. I can’t do it. It’s not something I’m willing to live with therefore I’ve chosen the opt-out plan only for this season.”

These independent decisions speak well of each man, and just as we respect their choices, so too should we understand those players who are willing to play during the pandemic. As Chung said, “Everyone has different situations. Some people don’t have people who are high-risk in their household or around them. Whatever they do, hopefully they make the right decision to keep their family healthy, and keep themselves safe.”

Veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower opted out as well.
Veteran linebacker Dont'a Hightower opted out as well.Barry Chin

That, of course, is paramount. As baseball proved only days ago, there are no protocols that guarantee no transmission, not when a league is attempting to come back without an insular bubble. Unlike the NBA, which revealed Wednesday there have been no positive tests inside its post-quarantine Disney campus, or the WNBA, which had said the same prior to starting its season last weekend, or MLS, which weathered some early infections among on-site teams but was able to corral the spread, the NFL brings its own issues to the fore.

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It’s the most contact of all the contact sports, one in which huddles, tackles, and handshakes abound. And that’s on the field. As baseball proved also, the spread can reach off-field personnel just as quickly as it can players. Whether any of those infected really get sick isn’t so much the issue, but rather the risk they might then pose to the other people in their lives.

That’s the decision they face, and I, for one, feel for them.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.