With NFL training camps under way as the league prepares to play amid the coronavirus pandemic, Cleveland Browns center and NFLPA president JC Tretter, takes a timeout for some Q&A with The Post’s Steve Serby.
Q: What is your level of optimism that we will have a 16-game season?
A: I think we’re in a good spot right now. I think we’ve built very strong protocols, with testing the way we want it. I think guys understand that football has to look different this year, the facility’s different than what it usually is. First making sure that the sense of urgency in doing everything, not getting relaxed on the protocols, will be a big part. And then I think we’ll have to continue to evolve these protocols as the season goes on and as we gain new information as the CDC guidelines change, our protocols too will have to change. We’ll have to continue to be proactive during the year.
Q: How big of a concern is a second wave of infection when the weather begins to cool?
A: That’s one thing that I’ve started to look at is the need for daily testing. We’re starting out with daily testing right now the first two weeks of training camp, then we’re supposed to transition to an every other day kinda thing. It’s become clear watching other sports leagues as well is just the need to know who’s sick and who’s not sick, and whenever there’s somebody who gets into the building who’s shedding virus, what we’ve been told is it just spreads like wildfire. There’s really no stopping it. The main focus should be making sure we keep sick individuals out of the facility, out of mixing with the rest of the population of players. So I think it’d be important for when we get to those regular flu months as well, until we know who has COVID-19 and who doesn’t, so we don’t hit a mass outbreak within a building.
Q: Doesn’t it makes sense then to extend the daily testing to the rest of the season?
A: I agree with you. I think that’s what guys want. I think guys don’t mind the testing, I think guys like the peace of mind of knowing whether they’re sick, whether they’re not, whether their teammates are sick, whether their teammates are not. And also, being comfortable going home to their families. Knowing that they were tested that morning and getting the results every day. There are too many good reasons why they should continue daily testing throughout the season.
Q: What message would you give your teammates?
A: There’s a personal responsibility to it. This is beyond what we usually see. This isn’t a players’ issue, this is everybody in the building. I’d say the same thing to the coaches, to the staff, to the executives – – the decisions you make, especially away from the building, away from the bubble we’ve built, will have direct impact on the other people that you work with, and their families. Everybody in the building needs to make the right decision, and then you’re gonna really always keep the virus top of mind. There’s a new normal how you have to do things this season, and you can’t fall back into old habits or what you’ve always done, or it’s gonna cause a big issue for everybody involved.
Q: Is it realistic to expect 100 percent adherence?
A: Well I think that’s why there’s links in the chain. . . It’s all part of making sure we have as many barriers to an outbreak as possible, I think guys don’t want to get sick for the reasons I just described, I think they care a lot about their teammates, they care a lot about their families, their teammates’ families, and then understanding that making bad decisions impacts those people, not just yourself. I think guys understand that, and it will be about continuing to reinforce that throughout the season.
Q: What have you learned from watching Major League Baseball?
A: Not relaxing, and not forgetting the world we’re living in right now, and making sure we’re doing the right things at all times. And then I think the other issue was they have a significant lag time in testing. When you’re not always knowing who is sick and who is not and you’re allowing sick people to get in the building, that’s how outbreaks happen. Especially watching what’s going on with Major League Baseball, that’s one of the main reasons why we need to continue daily testing. It gives us the best chance to have a full season. That’s what we all want, that’s what the players want, they want to have a full season, they want to be able to crown a Super Bowl champion in February. And we should be making every decision that gives us the best chance to do that.
Q: Was the bubble concept discussed?
A: I’m not sure how practical it would be. I think the amount of people that it takes to put on a football game is staggering. And I think putting 32 full teams with their staffs and all the auxiliary personnel that you need to do that in one area, practicality, it’s just not there. When you’re looking at a six, seven, eight-month season depending on how far you go in the playoffs, I’m not sure there’d be a lot of guys who would want to spend that amount of time away from their wives, from their young kids and from their family.
Q: What about traveling to COVID-19 hotspots?
A: We didn’t want there to be joint practices this year, we didn’t want there to be preseason games this year, we didn’t want teams going to training camp in a different location, and then coming back to their original location halfway through training camp. You want to save your bubble environment. One of the main differences between us and baseball is baseball has been on the road for most of the year. They’re going from city to city, and it’s a tough balancing act. We’ll have our traveling protocol, we have rules in place on what can go on in the team hotel, where you’re allowed to go and where you’re not allowed to go. Those protocols will always evolve, but I think we have a pretty good grasp on how it’s gonna work right now.
Q: Is there any hope that at some point there will be fans in stadiums?
A: That decision’s kind of out of our hands. A lot of these decisions are being made by the government on whether they’re allowing crowds. That’s what we’re waiting on, and then making the best decision for public health. I think we go as the nation goes, and right now we’re struggling to get this under control. Each local government’s taking their own stance on how to move forward so the teams are kind of at the will of those decisions.
Q: Your wife (Anna) is expecting. How difficult of a decision was it for you whether to opt out or not?
A: I spoke to medical professionals and experts and talked through the risks and right now I’m staying in the team hotel away from my wife just to make sure as we get started that we have a firm grasp on how things are at work and to make sure that there’s no one sick in the building, so I wanted to just be as cautious as possible. It’s always a tough decision. Our goal as a union was to give players choices and let them go back with the information we could give them and make an educated decision for themselves and their family. Guys love playing football, it’s tough to not play, to make that decision, and it’s also tough to accept the added risks of playing this year.
Q: Was it tougher for you because you’re in the trenches, in a very enclosed space?
A: There’s gonna be that risk when you can’t social distance anymore. And then obviously, the guys in the trenches are gonna be a foot away from each other for the entire game for the most part. But again, it’s all about mitigation of risk, and doing everything you can to make as many positive decisions, understanding that there’s gonna be some times that you can’t mitigate risk on the field.
Q: Some players might decide to wear face shields?
A: That will be available to all guys, it won’t be mandatory but it’ll be optional. We want to make sure guys have the opportunity to try that on before they’d have to play with it. I think everyone should give it a try. I think it will potentially help with the COVID issues.
Q: Did you have to reassure Odell Beckham Jr. after he told the Wall Street Journal that it didn’t make sense playing the season?
A: No, that story ran a couple of weeks after when the interview took place, and I’ve been in pretty constant contact with Odell throughout the entire offseason. We were holding twice-a-week all-player calls to the NFL, so Odell was on most of those. I think he was voicing the same concerns that all the players were voicing throughout this offseason, just wanting the safest possible environment to go back to work. Guys wanted to play, guys want to play, and they just want to be safe as well.
Q: What has it been like being union president during a pandemic?
A: I’ve learned more about epidemiology and viruses than I ever thought I would, but in the end, the months of prep and then the months of negotiations, we ended up with a really good deal for the players.
Q: Why did you welcome such a big responsibility?
A: It’s something I’ve always been really passionate about. I went to school for it, I went to Cornell and got a bachelor’s in industrial labor relations. So it was something I was interested in doing before football became an option for me.
Q: What do you like best about this Browns team?
A: I really enjoy what (GM) Andrew Berry and (HC) Kevin Stefanski have brought to the table this year. We’ve got a bunch of talent, a bunch of pieces, and we’ve got great leadership by those two guys.
Q: Your thoughts on Baker Mayfield?
A: You could tell he worked his tail off. It’s impressive how he transformed his body, and I’ve always enjoyed his attitude and personality. And I think guys want to follow him.
Q: And Odell?
A: There’s a perception of him outside the locker room, and it’s much different than the perception inside the locker room, He’s a guy that’s always looking out for his teammates and it’s been great to get to know him over the last year.
Q: Jedrick Wills?
A: He’s got all the tools, and I’m excited to get on the field with him and work with him.
Q: Your on-field mentality.
A: Being a center is an interesting position in football. The way I’ve always gone into it is I have to be very composed, ‘cause you’ve got a lot of people relying on you to keep your cool when things are going a little crazy. It affects everybody else’s job in how you do your job. Try to be a rock in the middle of the line and make sure everybody has faith in you that they’re gonna be in the right position ‘cause you’re gonna put ‘em there.
Q: Black Lives Matter.
A: Yes, they do matter. I think what we’ve seen from the players is guys have started to understand their power, their platform, and the importance of speaking up and using their voice beyond just what goes on on the field.
Q: What was it like blocking for Aaron Rodgers?
A: Obviously a Hall of Fame player, and a great person too. Great teammate.
Q: Lambeau Field.
A: It’s special. That area, they love Packers football, and you feel the history running out of that tunnel. It was special to be drafted there, and to play four years there.
Q: Boyhood idol?
A: I was a Minnesota Viking fan, so I kinda started watching football the same time Randy Moss come into the league. I was a high school quarterback, actually, obviously a bigger guy to be a quarterback, so I was a huge Daunte Culpepper fan.
Q: You could pick the brain of any offensive lineman in NFL history.
A: Matt Birk. He was the Vikings center, so obviously I watched a lot of him growing up. Harvard guy, so we have the Ivy League school in common. A very bright guy, very good leader.
Q: You could test your skills against any defensive player in NFL history.
A: Selfishly, I’d probably want to block somebody extremely easy to block, but if I’m looking for somebody to test my skills, Reggie White.
Q: Athletes in other sports you admire.
A: Michael Jordan. His tenacious will to win is inspiring.. . that NEED to win.
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: My dad, sister, and grandma. My grandma passed away when she was in college, and my sister and I never got to meet her.
Q: Favorite movies?
A: Remember the Titans and Gladiator.
Q: Favorite actor?
A: Denzel Washington.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?
A: Bruno Mars
Q: Favorite meal?
A: A nice big steak.
Q: What would your message to NFL fans be?
A: The expectation should be that we’ll be back playing normal football. We’ve obviously had less of an offseason, and training camp will look different, but I trust the coaches to get the guys prepared to go out there and perform the way we’ve always performed. . .It’s all of us in this together. We’re all fighting this virus, and we all want to crown a Super Bowl champion in February, and that’s our goal.