Panthers’ Okung refutes retirement report

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers left tackle Russell Okung on Tuesday refuted a report that retirement was a consideration for him if the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, citing a source, reported two weeks ago that Okung was evaluating whether to retire over coronavirus concerns if he felt the football environment was not safe. The report also said Okung seriously considered opting out.

Okung, who missed 10 games last year with the Los Angeles Chargers because of a pulmonary embolism due to blood clots, spoke to reporters on Tuesday for the first time about the report.

“I always expected to play,” the two-time Pro Bowl selection said. “It’s unfortunate that so many people, certain people in the media, are more interested in being the first to report as opposed to reporting something that is accurate. No conversations like that have been had in order for that individual to feel it’s necessary to put any information out there like that.

“Especially in this time, with so many people dealing with unemployment, to put any sort of farce information out there it’s extremely disappointing.”

Okung’s agent, J.I. Halsell, said after the initial report came out that “nothing was imminent” regarding his client making a decision on retirement. However, he said if Okung was not feeling comfortable in his work environment due a COVID-19 outbreak that “could lead him to strongly consider retirement.”

The Panthers in March traded Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner to the Chargers for the 31-year-old Okung. They picked up the final year of his contract, which has a salary cap value of $13,031,250 in 2020.

Okung said after the trade that he didn’t come to Carolina to be a part of a rebuild under first-year coach Matt Rhule, but that he came to win immediately.

Two days into padded practice he still believes the Panthers have a chance to win now. He said he’s appreciative Rhule and the training staff have allowed him to leave practice early each day to work in the pool to deal with tightness in his lower back.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t get to have the year I would like to have,” Okung said of last season. “To have acknowledgement from the head coach, and say we want to make sure we take the best approach to make sure you return back safely to the game . . . has been good.

“I’m just getting worked back into everything. Today was a good practice. I was out there a lot longer than even I expected to be.”

Okung has been outspoken on social media on social injustice and the pandemic. He stressed support for all those who are suffering, another reason the report he was considering retirement bothered him.

“I get an opportunity to do something that I love,” Okung said. “So many people across the world are unemployed and going through really difficult situations. My heart definitely goes out to them.

“As for me, I still have a job. I still get a chance to report every morning by doing something I’ve been gifted to do. I’m going to put my best foot forward regardless of the situation.”

Okung also explained one of his recent tweets concerning the coronavirus specifically.

“Without getting too far away from football, it’s important that we think critically about the decisions made, especially when it comes to public policy,” he said. “There is some data which really speaks to just how the hysteria of the coronavirus has actually been able to take place and whether that is the proper identifiers . . . or even how a lot of our political figures are handling this.

“It’s important we are aware and extremely defensive when it comes to our own individual liberties. As an American and proud American, honestly I expect more.”

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