In their article, the Atlanta Journal-Consitution touched base on the NFL’s plans to start their season on time. Locally, the Falcons coach Dan Quinn is starting the rookie training camp before the veterans arrive on July 28. Quarterbacks and injured players will also be arriving earlier. While plans continue in Atlanta, the NFL and NFLPA, the player’s union, hit some bumps in the road.
These issues center around protocols and plans for the exhibition season. Communication is flowing, with four conference calls over the past few weeks. One of these calls focused on hearing from the doctors of teams in the coronavirus “hot spots”, like Texas, Arizona, and Florida.
“We’ve been serious and a little bit hard-nosed with the league about making sure that all of our partners out there in the world who try to do the best by a group of people need to be heard,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said Friday. “As we are going forward, we certainly understand that given where we are, we’ve got to figure out the right balance about things.”
Both Houston and Kansas City have instructed rookies to report on Monday.
“We have players, as we’ve spoken to our membership, who are nervous about flying from a relative safe location directly into a hot spot with their families, their kids and their wives,” NFLPA president J.C. Tretter said. “That’s a major concern with stuff going on in Houston and Miami. How safe is that? Our job is to hold the NFL accountable and have them answer those questions.”
Though the season will definitely look different than usual, there’s optimism that both sides will work out the specifics.
“I don’t see the season shutting down,” said Dr. Rand McClain, a leader in the regenerative and sports medicine fields. “I don’t see there being an issue for the NFL. There really shouldn’t be an issue for any of these leagues unless they are really dropping the ball. I’m not blaming just the league, but the players have to drop the ball, too, for it to fall apart.”
Since the NFL hopes to return after MLB, the NBA, and MLS do, they look to learn some lessons.
“The NFL is in a great position because they have time to learn from the other league’s mistakes,” said McClain, co-founder and chief medical officer of LCR Health in Santa Monica, Calif. One example is the NBA testing or screening the drivers of the team vans inside the bubble in Orlando.
“Our normal return date for training camp is quickly approaching, and we are still far from back to ‘normal,’” Tretter wrote in a NFLPA letter. “Our main concern is player safety, both in regard to preventing the virus’ transmission as well as preventing injuries after an extended and historically unique layoff.”
The main issue, according to Falcons player representative Josh Harris, is player safety.
“A lot of things that need to be taken care of, especially on the testing front, before we can really move forward,” Harris said. “The good news is that it has been progressing and hopefully soon we’ll be able to start reporting and be able to go through the processes that have been laid out by health and safety guidelines to safely return back to work.”
Although it’s not surprising, this will be anything but a normal season.
“We’re not going to make it 100% safe,” McClain said. “The sport itself is not 100% safe, but we do the best that we can to mitigate the risk of a concussion, a broken neck, that sort of thing.
“What we are trying to do here, no one is saying that we can eliminate the risk of coronavirus, but we are trying to mitigate the risk as much as possible. Hence, the regular testing.”
Testing is one of the disagreements among players and teams. Reportedly, the players are pushing for daily testing while the teams prefer testing periodically.
“Assuming everyone is following the social-distancing and the mask-wearing guidelines etc., outside of the game and outside of scrimmage and camp and whatnot, then when they do enter the game where there is obviously contact, that they have already been screened, they shouldn’t be carrying the virus and there shouldn’t be a problem,” McClain said. “That’s the whole idea here.”
Let’s look at the numbers. In the league, 2.5% of players have tested positive in the offseason. According to the NFLPA, that’s 72 players out of 2,880 who have tested positive.
One of those affected was Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth. A family member went to lunch with a friend in California, then ended up spreading the virus.
“A couple of days later we were traveling all together, and she started not feeling well and decided to get a test,” Whitworth said. “The next thing we know she had it. A couple of days after that, our kids had it. We were seven-for-seven at that point. … It was scary.
“For our family and our kids, we ended up OK, and everything seemed to go pretty normal, a pretty mild case. But for her parents, it wasn’t that way.”
As players return, there are more positive tests expected.
“When we see the initial spike in cases, when guys enter camp, that’s expected,” McClain said. “That’s where we’ve drawn the line. That’s where the entrance is if you will. … It’s the whole purpose of the testing, to (screen) out these guys that are already infected.”
After the players return, are tested, and show up negative, they will need to follow new protocols.
“I think every other day is adequate,” McClain said. “That’s pretty aggressive. I think every day, I don’t know why you need to push the limits. If they are just doing one test or the other, the serological vs. the molecular test, or are they testing for antibodies or testing for the virus itself? You are still talking about $100 to $200 a day maximum (per test), which isn’t chump change. That’s a lot of cold beer.”
On Odell Beckham’s Youtube channel, Victor Cruz, former New York Giants wide receiver, interviewed some current players. This included New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton as well as Falcons running back Todd Gurley. Both players expressed concern about the situation.
“We want to live this normal life again, but it’s invisible,” Newton said of the coronavirus. “You don’t know if it’s here. You don’t know if I got it (and) you don’t know if you got it. If the cameraman’s got it. That’s the scariest thing. … For us, our sport, you pass DNA off.”
“(Football) is going to take care of itself,” Gurley said. “I’ve been balling my whole life. That’s what I do. As long as I (can) be consistent and put in the work every day, then I know what’s going to happen on that field.”
One big difference the players will face is playing to an empty stadium.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that you just have to come to an agreement with yourself and understand that this is what it is,” Gurley said.
In March, the NFLPA signed off on a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL. This included offseason protocols and limited staff returning.
“How safe is it to start back up a football season at this moment with locations in this country where teams are located going through giants spikes of this virus,” Tretter said. “That has to be something that is looked at as we make any decision. The health-and-safety aspect has to be taken care of for the players.”
No matter what, this season is going to be challenging.
“We don’t want to merely return to work and have the season shut down before we even get started,” Tretter wrote. “The NFLPA will do its part to advocate for player safety. We will continue to hold the NFL accountable and demand that the league use data, science and the recommendations of its own medical experts to make decisions.
“It has been clear for months that we need to find a way to fit football inside the world of coronavirus. Making decisions outside that lens is both dangerous and irresponsible.”