NFL Eyes Return To Normalcy But Many Players Question State Of Pandemic Plan

Ric Tapia via AP

As the NBA and Major League Baseball approach their returns to action this month, the NFL is experiencing turbulence in the final days before training camps are scheduled to open.

The league, which has been negotiating with its players’ union over COVID-19 protocols, issued a statement Friday afternoon affirming that it is still aiming for business as usual. Many players, however, have been voicing growing concern over what they feel is a lack of information and an inadequate safety plan.

“NFL clubs met today via videoconference and received an update on preparations for the 2020 season,” the league statement said. “We will continue to implement the health and safety protocols developed jointly with the NFLPA, and based on the advice of lea​ding medical experts, including review by the CDC. We will address additional issues in a cooperative way. All decisions will be made in an effort to put us in position to play a full regular season and postseason culminating with the Super Bowl which is the shared goal of the clubs and the players.”

The NFL Players Association has held a series of conference calls designed to offer a forum for players making decisions as the season draws closer. Unlike the NBA or NHL and other leagues using a “bubble” approach, the NFL has more players and has concluded it would be unwieldy to attempt a contained environment. With players and staff coming and going, and with a great degree of variability among different regions of the U.S. in terms of coronavirus infection, concern levels are rising. The NFLPA revealed Thursday that 72 players had tested positive for COVID-19.

On a call with media on Friday, NFLPA officials estimated that each of the NFL’s 32 teams could lose $70 million this year due to the pandemic, which will limit fans at games and has already forced a shorter pre-season. TV networks, meanwhile, are biting their fingernails and sweating the daily virus data, knowing they have billions of dollars at stake. Already, 2020 has taken on a bizarre and agonizing shape in the TV business, with the long absence of live sports and the still-murky state of production. The gradual ebbing of hope for college football has left networks contemplating what seemed unthinkable: pigskin-free weekends until 2021.

In a tweet Thursday, Houston Texans defensive tackle J.J. Watt highlighted the uncertainty. Unfurling a bullet-pointed list, he observed, “We have not received a single Infectious Disease Emergency Response plan from any team or the league.” He rattled off several other unknowns, such as testing protocols, the status of preseason games and the lack of updates on how positive tests for players will affect contracts or roster spots. “We want to play,” he emphasized. “We want to be as safe as possible.”

Patrick Mahomes, the Super Bowl MVP quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs replied to Watt’s tweet for the benefit of his 1.2 million followers: “Thank you!”

J.C. Tretter, a center for the Cleveland Browns who became president of the NFLPA in March, said on Friday’s call that coaches have complained that requested protocols are excessive. “‘Everyone’s going to get sick, so we might as well all get sick together,'” the coaches have said, according to an account of Tretter’s remarks by ESPN’s Dan Graziano. “Those attitudes can’t happen. There are consequences to getting sick.”

The regular season is slated to begin September 10, with the Mahomes’ Chiefs hosting Watts’ Texans. But a host of issues will need to be settled if that is to happen. HBO’s Hard Knocks, which spotlights training camps each summer, this year features the LA Rams and Chargers. It is due to premiere August 11 and producers last month said they were planning to film coronavirus-related moments, though the show is made by NFL Films, which has final cut.

According to a tweet by Miami Herald sportswriter Barry Jackson, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith closed the media call by saying that “people wearing masks across country is [the] biggest determinant about whether sports can be played and seasons can be played fully.”

Here is Watt’s tweet and Mahomes’ reply:

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