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Will players use COVID-19 concerns to rattle opponents?

Football players have become notorious over the years for doing anything possible to get an edge over their opponents. Football in a pandemic presents a new opportunity to rattle the other guy.

Despite the various protections that the NFL will employ in team facilities and locker rooms and hotels and on airplanes and buses and sidelines and before games and after games, football will continue to be an 11-on-11 scrum, with anything but six feet of separation between players, especially when everyone is lined up before the snap.

With offensive linemen required to remain in their stances while awaiting the snap count, what better way to try to get them to lose focus than to breathe, cough, and/or spit on them? Despite the sense of brotherhood that has emerged in recent years, thanks to factors like free agency and shared concerns regarding long-time health and welfare, the game remains intensely competitive. Players always want an advantage, especially in the trenches.

In the days before the Internet, Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle found that advantage by doing extensive research on his opponents and their families.

“When that guy messed with me the next game, I asked him how he would feel if I came to Houston during the offseason and did the same thing to him,” Randle told ESPN.com in 2014. “He was shocked by that response. He actually looked at me and said, ‘How do you know I live in Houston?’ And that’s how I got started.

Hall of Fame defensive tackle Art Donovan, didn’t simply talk crap at opponents. He threw it. Literally.

Consider this, from Donovan’s book, Fatso: “The circus had been at the stadium, had just packed up and left the day before the game. And there was elephant shit all over the field. So when the Giants offensive line got set and weren’t allowed to move, we all started throwin’ elephant shit in their faces. They got so many penalties called on ‘em for breaking their set and starting fights.”

Whether modern players will bring that kind of “all’s fair” mentality to the mental aspect of playing football during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak remains to be seen. If/when it happens, it shouldn’t surprise anyone. Randle explained that his goal in talking trash was to frustrate the opponent, to throw him off his game. In turn, that made it easier to beat him.

“You get so intense playing it that there really is nothing like it,” Randle said. “When you’re out there, you see guys become totally different people. It might be hard for some people to see that part of it but it’s a tough game. And when you find something you can take advantage of, you do it.”

Breathing, coughing, and/or spitting on an offensive linemen who has assumed a posture from which he can’t move before the snap becomes something obvious that a defensive player can take advantage of. And what can the lineman do about it? Complain to the referee after a play that “number 78 is coughing on me”?

We’ve asked the league whether rules will be clarified or enhanced to deal with the potential inevitability that players will try to weaponize coronavirus concerns in order to get an edge. Although the NFL already has clear rules regarding spitting, it’s sometimes hard to spot the spit. When it comes to coughing or exaggerated breathing when nose to nose with an offensive lineman, it will be impossible to objectively detect it.

The best approach will be for the league and union to take steps aimed at ensuring everyone on the field truly is negative for the virus, so that all players will know that any extra-curricular breathing, coughing, or spitting isn’t, won’t, and can’t spread the virus. As the NFL and NFL Players Association continue to haggle over details like frequency of testing, dynamics like thing tend to favor an approach that entails testing players as often as possible.