As concern grows about the NFL’s ability to stage a full and on-time season, the NFL Players Association is questioning the viability of opening training camps this month in areas of the country experiencing explosive growth in the number of novel coronavirus cases.
Most teams are scheduled to report to training camp July 28. The league has considered a variety of coronavirus-related contingencies but consistently has said it is planning to stage a full season beginning as scheduled Sept. 10, with teams playing games in their own stadiums, hopefully in front of some fans. The NFL has sent detailed health protocols to teams but continues to negotiate some key details of its plan with the NFLPA, including the frequency players will be tested for the virus.
The deliberations come while other sports leagues are taking steps to resume but are experiencing issues related to testing and treatment of positive cases. Some college football conferences have announced plans to not play this fall, while others have pared schedules to only conference games. The decisions being made by the college and pro leagues come as caseloads rise in many states.
“We all want to play,” a high-ranking official with an NFL team said. “We all want to make this work. But there are some big issues in some places of the country. That can’t be ignored.”
This week, a person familiar with the NFL’s planning said: “Just look at what’s going on in our country. We are undisciplined as a country.”
That person, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said the league was not giving consideration to postponing training camps or the season, adding that the NFL continues to do its best to remain optimistic that its protocols will allow camps and the season to take place. But the developments with some college conferences “don’t bode well,” that person said, adding that public health developments and state-by-state policies set by governors will be telling.
“The governors are going to determine what we can and can’t do,” the person with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said.
The NFL and NFLPA have agreed to many aspects of the health protocols by which teams will operate during training camp and the season, but the sides continue to negotiate issues such as testing frequency, the length of the preseason, the structure of training camp and the rules by which players will be able to opt out of competing.
“As we have stated since the pandemic began, our primary focus is on the health and safety of the public, the players and team personnel,” the NFL said in a statement. “We continue to work with the NFL Players Association and our joint medical advisers to mitigate the health risk to everyone associated with the NFL. We are developing a comprehensive testing program and have rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious-disease experts and other sports leagues. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season.”
The league has planned to reduce the preseason from four to two games per team, but the NFLPA is seeking to eliminate the preseason entirely. The league also wants to mandate that players wear face shields on their helmets to help guard against on-field transmission of the virus, while the union wants to advise players to try the shields during training camp and then reevaluate.
Some of the states with surging caseloads — including Florida, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana — are homes to NFL teams. California, with three franchises, just reimposed some coronavirus-related restrictions. Many players are expressing concerns publicly.
“If the NFL doesn’t do their part to keep players healthy,” New York Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder wrote on Twitter, “there is no football in 2020. It’s that simple.”
Houston Texans safety Justin Reid called on the league to delay the start of training camps and the season. Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Donovan Smith, whose first child is due to be born in the coming weeks, said in an Instagram post that “risking my health, as well as my family’s health, does not seem like a risk worth taking.”
Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter, the NFLPA’s president, wrote recently that the league must better adapt, or it risks jeopardizing the season.
“Every decision this year that prioritizes normalcy over innovation, custom over science or even football over health, significantly reduces our chances of completing the full season,” Tretter wrote in a message posted to the union’s website. “We don’t want to merely return to work and have the season shut down before we even get started.”
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN last month that “football may not happen this year” unless players are isolated in a bubble environment. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said then that he was “optimistic” that the league could begin its season on time and play it to completion.
The NFL’s contingency-planning has included consideration of a delayed or shortened season, games being played in empty or partially filled stadiums, and games being relocated or rescheduled if needed, according to people familiar with the league’s planning. There’s no indication that the NFL has given serious consideration to having all teams gather to play in a bubble environment at a single site, as the NBA is doing near Orlando, or at a small number of hub cities, as the NHL is doing in Toronto and Edmonton.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.
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