Anecdotally, at least, there’s a belief inside the world of football that offensive linemen are among the smartest in the sport. In 2018, the Los Angeles Times explored the topic, as did ESPN and Sports Illustrated in 2008 and 2003. Look past them as slow, big brutes and realize they possess “uncommon intellect,” as SI’s headline put it.
So, perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, in the middle of a pandemic, that offensive linemen opted out of this upcoming season more than any other position group.
The NFL’s deadline to voluntarily opt out of the 2020 season was Thursday, and of the 66 players to withdraw, 20 were offensive linemen. The next highest bunch? The group across from them inside the trenches: Twelve defensive linemen volunteered to skip action this fall.
Every player’s decision is a personal choice. But it might not be coincidence, either, says Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of infectious disease and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“Certainly those groups that are in close contact to one another for an extended period of time are certainly going to be at the highest risk of transmission of the virus,” Dr. Weatherhead said. “We know that the virus is transmitted through droplets, possibly through airborne transmission, which requires close sustained contact with infected individuals.”
More than any other position on the field, linemen generate the most contact on a per-play basis — smashing into each other from snap to snap. Dr. Weatherhead, though, said the linemen are also potentially at risk even before play begins as they’re lined up across from each other just inches apart. Even without contact, they’re still within close, physical proximity, she said.
To conduct the season and try to assure players, the NFL has put in detailed health and safety protocols. Players, coaches and executives are tested daily for the coronavirus through at least the first two weeks of training camp. Facilities have also been modified to ensure social distancing can be followed. The NFL even established a list of fineable offenses for not following proper guidelines — players can be fined nearly $15,000 for not wearing a mask, for instance.
The NFL Players’ Association said Wednesday that 56 players have tested positive for the virus since reporting to training camp. That, according to multiple reports, represent 2% of the player body, which is approximately 2,600 (80 players per roster across 32 teams, an additional players not counting toward the roster like injured players.)
Despite the measures, some felt uncomfortable with playing. Kansas City Chiefs guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a medical school graduate who was the first player to opt out, said he could not risk potentially transmitting the virus “in our communities simply to play the sport that I love.” Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Marquise Goodwin said he did not want to jeopardize the health of his daughter and wife. Washington had two opt-outs, defensive lineman Caleb Brantley and linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons.
When it comes to linemen, epidemiologist Zachary Binney noted that “heavier folks seem to have a more difficult time” with the virus. These days, it’s common for offensive and defensive linemen to weigh more than 300 pounds. It would make sense then, he said, if those positions, in particular, were more cautious about playing.
According to the NFL’s website, eight players who opted out wee classified with the “higher risk” designation, meaning they have one of the Center of Disease Control’s 15 underlying medical conditions for developing severe illness if diagnosed with COVID-19.
Of those eight, seven — including Brantley — played in the trenches. The other, Carolina’s Christian Miller, is classified as a linebacker, but is an edge rusher who played all 91 of his snaps along the d-line, according to Pro Football Focus.
“When you start talking about offensive and defensive linemen, these guys have more muscle than I’ll ever have,” said Binney, an assistant professor of quantitative theory and methods at Oxford College of Emory University, “but they also carry quite a bit around of extra fat. They’re just big guys.
“So I would definitely be worried about bad outcomes from a severe respiratory (standpoint). I would be more worried for linemen.”
The NFL player’s directory, which includes free agents, lists a total of 3,264 players, 1,013 of which are linemen. That accounts for 31% of the league. But for the NFL’s opt-out list, linemen accounted for 48% of withdrawals.
“Throughout the game, there’s constant close contact with the linemen,” Dr. Weatherhead said. “That’s in contrast to other positions where — obviously it’s a very physical game, a lot of person-to-person contact, but it’s not as sustained as it is on the line.”
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