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NFL reschedules three games as pro sports leagues face renewed covid concerns

Quarterback Baker Mayfield was among the many Browns players placed on the covid-19 list this week. (David Richard/AP)

The NFL, beset by a sharp rise in coronavirus cases among its players this week, made its first scheduling changes of its 2021 season Friday, providing the clearest signal yet that the nation’s pro sports leagues are back in scramble mode as the omicron variant proliferates and health officials issue warnings about the prospects for a massive wave of infections in the United States.

The finish line to the NFL’s 18-week regular season is in sight, with the Week 15 games already underway. Until Friday, no games had been postponed this season even as teams continued to deal with periodic disruptions.

But the dynamic changed this week when more than 150 players leaguewide tested positive over a five-day span ending Friday. The Los Angeles Rams had 29 players on their covid-19 reserve list after adding four players Friday. The NFL postponed three games this weekend involving the Cleveland Browns, the Washington Football Team and the Rams.

“The emergence of the Omicron variant is precisely the kind of change that warrants a flexible response,” Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a memo to all NFL teams explaining the postponement decisions. “Based on medical advice, we have instituted additional protocols as well as revised testing protocols for reinstating players and staff who have tested positive. We have also considered whether certain games should be rescheduled in light of current conditions.”

The NFL is not alone. The NBA postponed two games involving the Chicago Bulls and revised its covid-19 protocols based on an increase in cases. The NHL postponed all games for the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers through at least the Christmas weekend and said the hard-hit Calgary Flames would remain shut down at least through Dec. 23.

The NFL has attributed its increase in cases this week to the growing prevalence of the omicron variant.

“This is urgent for us, just as it always has been,” Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said Wednesday at a meeting of team owners in Irving, Tex.

The Browns, Washington and the Rams have been particularly inundated this week by positive coronavirus tests by their players. They had their games pushed back by two days each and now are scheduled to play Monday and Tuesday. The NFL Players Association had advocated in recent days for consideration of postponements of games involving teams experiencing outbreaks.

“We have made these schedule changes based on medical advice and after discussion with the NFLPA as we are seeing a new, highly transmissible form of the virus this week resulting in a substantial increase in cases across the league,” the NFL said in a written announcement of the rescheduled games. “We continue to make decisions in consultation with medical experts to ensure the health and safety of the NFL community.”

The Browns’ game against the Las Vegas Raiders in Cleveland, originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, is now slated for 5 p.m. Eastern time Monday and will be televised on NFL Network.

Washington and Los Angeles will play Tuesday instead of Sunday. Washington plays at Philadelphia, and the Rams host the Seattle Seahawks in Inglewood, Calif. Both games are scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern time and will be televised regionally by Fox.

“Our expectation is that these games will be played at the rescheduled times and will not be moved to a later date or time during the week of December 20,” Goodell wrote in Friday’s memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The postponements came one day after the NFL adjusted its coronavirus protocols with a significant change that allows vaccinated players who test positive for the virus but remain symptom-free to be cleared to rejoin team activities — and potentially play in games — in as little as one day.

That modification could allow Cleveland, Washington and Los Angeles to replenish their rosters a bit by the time they play. The league said earlier this week it was finding that recent cases involved players showing mild to no symptoms.

The protocol changes Thursday, developed by the league and the NFLPA, also included stricter mask-wearing requirements and tougher restrictions to attempt to limit the spread of the virus within team settings. The modified protocols went into effect immediately but expire after Tuesday’s rescheduled games, necessitating further deliberations between the league and union.

NFL makes major protocol change, while players’ union advocates for postponements

“We are continuing to work with the NFLPA and our respective medical experts to evaluate and make appropriate modifications to our protocols to ensure that we can complete what has been an exciting and competitive season,” Goodell wrote Friday. “We will continue to communicate any developments relating to the protocols or other matters to you as early as possible.”

The NFL managed to play a complete 2020 season amid the pandemic but postponed several games. That included two rescheduled games being played on Tuesdays and one on a Wednesday. NFL leaders repeatedly have said that decisions about postponed games are made based on medical considerations, not on competitive issues.

Goodell wrote in Friday’s memo that this weekend’s postponement decisions were made based on medical advice. The league “will make every effort, consistent with underlying health and safety principles, to play our full schedule within the current 18 weeks,” Goodell wrote, adding, “Games will not be postponed or rescheduled because of roster issues affecting a particular position group or particular number of players.”

Sills said at midweek that, for the first time this season, the league was seeing evidence of transmission of the virus within teams’ facilities. Before that, he said, the NFL’s cases had been attributable almost entirely to individuals contracting the virus away from team facilities. Sills said then that the NFL’s early experience with the omicron variant was that it appeared to be more contagious while resulting in less severe illness.

“I believe that we’re entering a very different phase of this pandemic and, really, almost in many ways addressing a new disease,” Sills said Thursday in a conference call with reporters.

In a similar vein, the NBA said players and coaches will have to wear masks for nearly all team activities when they are not actively playing: while traveling, when they are sitting on the bench or in the locker room, and during team meetings and training sessions. Head coaches will not have to wear masks during games. Players and team staff members will be tested on game days over a two-week period starting Dec. 26, though people who received their booster shots at least 14 days earlier or have recently recovered from the virus will be exempt.

In making its decision to shut down three teams for at least a week, the NHL cited “concern with the number of positive cases within the last two days as well as concern for continued covid spread.”

In the NFL, unvaccinated players are tested daily while vaccinated players are tested once per week. The NFLPA has been advocating for a return to daily testing of all players, regardless of vaccination status, but the league has not agreed to that. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a radio interview Friday that he believes the league very soon will reach a point at which vaccinated individuals are tested only if they show symptoms.

The NFL has said that more than 94 percent of players leaguewide are vaccinated. The league and union have not mandated vaccinations for players. The NFL has required vaccinations for coaches and team staffers to maintain their eligibility to work closely with players; they’re now required to receive vaccine boosters by Dec. 27.

“It’s a challenge,” Goodell said Wednesday at the owners’ meeting. “I think the things that have made us successful was keeping safety first [and] being willing to adapt at all times. … It’s clear even in the last couple of weeks that the changes are pretty significant and different than they were before. And I think it calls for modifications to our protocols in general.”

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