The NFL is indisputably the king of professional sports in our country. The revenue, the ratings, the insatiable appetite for the product in all its forms — up to and including such seemingly mundane matters as the schedule reveal each spring — make that crystal clear.
And now, with the 2020 football season on the horizon, at least theoretically, the NFL is facing the ultimate test — trickier, more intricate and with a much smaller margin for error (i.e., potential for disaster) than its sporting brethren.
Rookies are starting to trickle into training camps, followed closely by injured players and quarterbacks. By next Tuesday, all players on all 32 teams are to have reported. Yet whether that schedule will proceed as planned, and whether the season will play out according to form, remains a huge, open question.
Through a quirk in timing, the NFL has been uniquely situated during this COVID-19 pandemic, a gift that didn’t keep on giving. With its season having just concluded when the coronavirus onslaught hit the United States, the NFL had the luxury of time to, initially, wait out the crisis. The league tried for as long as it could to proceed as if it were business as usual.
Postpone the draft? No way. Stick the commissioner in his basement, and let’s go!
Back in March, frankly, few thought we’d still be dealing with quarantines and viral hot spots with the NFL opener on the horizon. But here we are, with coronavirus still rampant in parts of the country. And the NFL now is finding out it is not immune to the headaches faced by the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, NWSL, et al — all of which preceded them in crafting back-to-work plans.
The NFL’s dose of reality was just longer in arriving. And now the league is dealing with the mega-migraine of dilemmas. It’s trying to appease its skeptical players and devise a workable plan that will keep the sport safely humming through the months between camp openings next week and the scheduled Super Bowl on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Florida.
As complicated as the task of figuring out how to proceed in the age of coronavirus was for the other sports — and there’s still no guarantee of success — the challenges pale in comparison to football, for two reasons.
One is the sheer scope of the NFL. With camp rosters set at 90 players, multiplied by 32 teams, that’s nearly 3,000 players to keep healthy — not to mention coaching staffs, medical staffs and support personnel in similar numbers. If roster sizes drop to 80, as was rumored Tuesday, that’s still 2,500 players. Absent a bubble environment that is logistically impossible, and with knowledge of how COVID-19 outbreaks can sweep through a close-quartered group, it’s a daunting prospect.
It also segues into the second huge challenge: The very essence of the football is antithetical to the concept of social distancing, to an extent that’s exponentially greater than any other sport. It’s a game predicated on huddling and hitting. As Tampa Bay tackle Donovan Smith, who has a pregnant wife due to deliver in three weeks, wrote on social media last week:
“How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferral of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? How can I make sure that I don’t bring COVID-19 back to my household?”
He added, “Risking my health as well as my family’s health does not seem like a risk worth taking.”
That was a precursor to a barrage of tweets Sunday by prominent NFL players, with the hashtag “WeWantToPlay,” that expressed concern over the absence of satisfactory health and safety protocols by the league. One of those tweets was by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson:
“I am concerned. My wife is pregnant. @NFL Training camp is about to start. And there’s still No Clear Plan on Player Health & Family Safety. We want to play football but we also want to protect our loved ones. #WeWantToPlay”
That coordinated effort by the NFLPA jolted the NFL to make some concessions Monday, though it’s hard to fathom why, with a four-month head start, the league was still working out details on the same day players started reporting to camp.
According to reports, the NFL agreed to eliminate all preseason games, and to test for COVID-19 every day for at least the first two weeks of training camp, or longer depending on the rate of positive tests. If the positive rate is below the threshold of 5 percent, testing would be scaled back to every other day.
Whether that will be enough to assuage the players remains to be seen. There are still thorny issues to work out, including the acclimation period before practice begins, and how the league would handle players who choose to opt out of the season because of concern over COVID-19.
It appears the Seahawks are waiting for the details to be finalized before asking their rookies to report, which was scheduled to happen Tuesday. Coach Pete Carroll has said he’d be OK with delaying the start of training camp to make sure the league gets it right. And on Monday, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay told “The Helliepod” podcast he’s “skeptical” that NFL training camps will open as scheduled next week.
“Something about it tells me maybe there’s a chance that things get moved back,” McVay said.
When the players finally do report, all the NFL has to do is keep thousands of people healthy for six months while players engage in their close-quarter combat, gather every day for meetings and training, get turned loose each night with the hope they’ll adhere to strict hygiene rules while on their own time at home and, starting in September, travel around the country.
Something tells me there’s a chance that not even the mighty titan of pro sports can pull this off.