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June 29, 2020

John McMullen: Is Malcolm Jenkins rightfully wary of NFL's mid-pandemic return?

Opinion Sports
96_11032019_EaglesvsBears_Malcolm_Jenkins_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Malcolm Jenkins during the Philadelphia Eagles game against the Chicago Bears at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on November 3, 2019.

One of the frustrations in public discourse is the failure of so many — even the brightest among us — to accept some basic truisms, the most notable of which may be a simple acknowledgment that difficult problems are never solved by things tied together neatly into a bow. 

There are no yes-or-no answers to society’s toughest questions, no up-or-down votes. It gets messy and for once the goalposts needed to be moved (or better defined, moved back to the original stated goal of a flattened curve) when it comes to the unrealistic expectations of COVID-19 and sports, a paradigm shift from perfection to pragmatism.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver reached that bar last week, at least publicly.

"My ultimate conclusion is we can't outrun the virus, and we are going to be living with this for the foreseeable future,” Silver admitted.

That’s a long way from Rudy Gobert and the panic of a star athlete testing positive for COVID-19. In just over three months we’ve shifted from motivated lockdown to committed restart with targeted precautions despite positive tests predictably piling up among athletes and some younger people who’ve often acted irresponsibly from a public-health standpoint.

The folly with that might be assuming the majority ever did otherwise and building a thesis on the foundation of misinformation.

Either way, the risk of contracting COVID-19 isn’t going to be eliminated by the time NFL teams report to training camp on July 28 either. The odds it’s gone by Super Bowl LV are minimal and even by September of 2021, it’s unlikely you will be hearing any doctors say the virus is going to be 100 percent eradicated.

Former Eagles safety and new CNN analyst Malcolm Jenkins wasn't preaching perfection on the news network last week, but his pragmatism was pointed toward NBA-like bubble plans while also correctly stating that’s a non-starter for entities the size of NFL teams.

“The NBA is a lot different than the NFL because they can quarantine all of their players, or whoever is going to participate, where we have over 2,000 players, even more coaches and staff. We can't do that,” Jenkins admitted. “So we'll kind of end up being on this trust system, honor system where we just have to hope guys are social-distancing and things like that.

“That puts all of us at risk.”

It does, but is that risk any larger than the one players take by engaging in such a violent sport to begin with? Any worse than a horrific Alex Smith-like injury or potential head trauma and dementia stemming from it down the road?

For an individual player, probably not. So, along with infection control officers, perhaps the NFL can also demand teams appoint insurance actuaries to determine risk assessment moving forward. 

Recently, Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, created alarm by estimating that the number of Americans who have contracted COVID-19 is likely 10 times higher than the 2.5 million-or-so currently confirmed cases.

However, that would also mean the death rate in this country plummets from 5.0 percent for those who contract the disease down to 0.5 percent. Of course, even that would be complicated because while COVID-19 is likely not going to harm professional athletes with healthy immune systems, getting infected could devastate family members and friends who may have underlying issues, something Jenkins’ also astutely acknowledged.

“I have parents I don't want to get sick,” he said.

Most serious-minded people would agree with Jenkins, but the path forward has been laid out despite misgivings.  

On a conference call late last week NFL commissioner Roger Goodell again confirmed the plan that training camps will begin on time and that organizations should “get ready for games at our stadiums and to engage our fans both in stadiums and through our media partners.” 

The wrangling of what that will look like continues with the NFLPA and Jenkins offered up an all-or-nothing solution.

“I think until we get to the point where we have protocols in place, until we get to a place as a country where we feel safe doing it, we have to understand football is a nonessential business and we don't need to do it,” he explained. “The risk has to be really eliminated before we, before I would feel comfortable with going back."

The "nonessential” part of Jenkins’ comments got the most play with the public and that’s a definition we should all probably scrap.

After all, some of what most state and local governments deem as essential via legislation (the police being the obvious example) have some of the same politicians who created that mindset for COVID-19 purposes eschewing it and at least giving lip service to “defunding” departments to win elections. More than hypocrisy, though, I hesitate to call any job that someone needs to live life and pay bills nonessential to them on a personal level.

From an NFL standpoint, the problem remains the endgame of getting the product on the field and Jenkins quickly took to social media to clarify his position and state he wants to play.

That clarification wasn’t needed for those of us who know Jenkins. It’s the details of his position that need explaining, along with clear yard-markers on what will change his current outlook.

Is it Dr. Anthony Fauci giving the concrete notion that a vaccine will be available in 2021 or 2022? If it’s the latter, at 32 with a two-years worth of money guaranteed in New Orleans, is Jenkins willing to give up the latter portion of his on-field career? 

And even if Jenkins himself would be willing to walk away because he’s already made his fortune and has other interests, he would certainly have to stipulate the majority of his peers who are not in the same life situation might not make that same decision.




The sweet spot has always been finding an overlap between acceptable viral control and acceptable social norms, something that’s best identified by epidemiologists who haven’t been stained by working for politicians. And we already have had the common-sense plan in place for months: masks, washing your hands and keeping social distance whenever possible.

The murkiness comes into the unrealistic assumption from partisans that other countries or even other states do it better to either shame people or own them instead of understanding that most of us can’t agree on what to order for lunch, so maybe expecting complete conformity to any plan is asking a bit much. Pretending it exists elsewhere is deceitful. Assuming it exists is obtuse.

Educate the best you can and move forward.  

Everyone in sports has either already started again or is gearing up to, from the English Premier League and Bundesliga internationally, to the three other major professional sports leagues in North America, the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL. 

The Indy 500 is planning on opening the stands at 50 percent capacity by August and WWE and UFC barely took a breather minus their fans. Before the latest spikes in places like Florida, WWE had planned to start taping with crowds in Florida by late July at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland in a scaled-down environment allowing for social distancing, according to a source inside that company. UFC chief Dana White, on the other hand, wants to wait for a full go when it comes to fans.

In the midst of all of this, there should be no NFL because why? 

Everything in science should be based on peer review so we are all listening, but your debate skills better run deeper than “Trump” or sit this one out.

Life is never about absolutes and that part of the equation is never changing.

This isn’t about essential vs. nonessential. It’s not even about vaccines vs. televisions rights fees. It’s about living life with something we can’t control no matter how many times we try to legislate it.

It’s about stepping out to try vs. sheltering in place. It’s about calculated risk instead of calculated destruction in the form of untenable further financial hardships and untold social and mental anxieties and illness.

And when some of the toughest, most accomplished among us can’t see that or even worse, exploit and manipulate the sentiment for personal gain, what chance does the common fan have?

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MORE: John McMullen: Don't worry, the NFL will be back in 2020

John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for You can reach him at or on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

You can listen to John during the week every Monday and Friday on @SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on @SBNationRadio, and daily on your favorite podcast platform for "Extending the Play."