The NFL needs a better plan for Covid-19 with the season quickly approaching.
The 2020 NFL season is quickly approaching. As we prepare for calendars to move into the month of July, it signals that we are now less than a month away from the start of most training camps. Fans of every NFL team are starved for the return of football and the escape it often brings from the stresses of everyday life.
Let’s be honest, right now there are a LOT of stresses in everyday life. One of those stresses is the Covid-19 crisis and, unfortunately, it is a legit threat to the sport of football in 2020.
Before I get into the particulars of this piece, I want to get a few things out of the way so we can all be on the same page going forward. I want football this season in the worst way, and I’m guessing you do, too, since you are reading this on a football blog. We all have that in common. What we don’t all likely have in common is our view on Covid-19. I’m not here to discuss those differences. I don’t care if you think everyone should be sheltering at home or if you think we need to go on with business as usual. I’m not looking to discuss your views on if/when some states are mandating masks in public or not.
The only thing we need to agree on to move forward is that the coronavirus will still be around (and will need to be addressed) when the season starts. If you can’t agree with that basic premise then you’ll probably just be frustrated by the rest of this piece.
The other thing that I am assuming is that the NFL will not just throw up their hands and do nothing, which would let Covid-19 run rampant through the league. So hopefully we are all in agreement that we want football this fall, that Covid-19 is still going to be an issue when the season starts, and that the NFL will have to do something to address it.
I tried my best this past week to read up on the NFL’s plans for this coming season and make myself as informed as possible before writing this. As I did, I became more and more convinced that the NFL’s current plan isn’t good enough and that if we want to see a full NFL season played out in it’s entirety, the league needs a better plan. I don’t say that as an alarmist or as someone just trying to cause a reaction for clicks. I say that as a realist that has tried to objectively look at the situation and is worried about being able to watch his beloved Kansas City Chiefs defend their Super Bowl title without a virus getting in their way.
I’ll get into a little of the details of what they are planning in a moment, but my basic argument is that you can’t have a full roster of NFL players living at home and in regular contact with their family, friends, and possibly even the community and not expect there to be major outbreaks that threaten the season. Period. We can get lost in all the details about what they’ll do at work and talk about testing and precautions until we’re blue in the face, but if that basic framework of players going home and contacting people in the real world and then coming back to a contact sport remains, the rest is just window dressing.
Back on July 8th, ESPN put out this story on the NFL’s memo on reopening. It’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the details of what the league is planning. I think this quote from their story gives a nice summary.
"In a lengthy four-part memo to the clubs written by commissioner Roger Goodell and approved by the NFLPA, the league described protocols focusing on screening, testing, infection prevention and treatment for COVID-19, including response for new infections. Also included were instructions on proper facility access; cleaning and disinfecting; physical distancing; hygiene, health education and medical services; food preparation; supplies; and team travel."
The story goes on to give details of the plan, like players wearing masks when they won’t interfere with performance, socially distancing when they aren’t actually playing, eliminating buffet-style meals at the team facilities, and testing players on a regular basis. Those things are all smart steps to take, but the players are still in contact with people at home and then playing a contact sport with each other.
The NFL recently expanded the practice squad to 12 players per team and there has even been talk of expanding it further to 16 players per team for the 2020 season to give teams even more players to draw from if they have positive tests on their team. Even if the NFL doesn’t expand their rosters further, 53 active roster players and 12 practice squad players is 65 players on each team. For 32 teams that makes 2,080 players that will be going to work every day during the NFL season. That’s 2,080 players going home in America’s largest metropolitan areas (where the virus has had the biggest numbers because there are more people that live close together) and then back to work to play tackle football.
Let’s say that the NFL goes out of their way to tell players to isolate at home as much as possible and not go out around big crowds. Do you trust that all 2,080 players will listen? Do you think that not a single player, if given the freedom, won’t go out to a crowded night club to celebrate after a tough game?
According to Kevin Seifert’s piece for ESPN on five big coronavirus concerns for the 2020 NFL season, the NFL knows that it’s going to happen. From Seifert’s piece:
"Indeed, the NFL has already conceded that some infections will occur. The challenge, according to NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills, “is to identify them as quickly as possible and prevent spread to any other participants.” That approach would not only minimize spread to teammates but also to family members and others at home."
Even if the NFL is testing every player every day, what are the odds that they’ll catch every positive player before they infect teammates when we know that masks and social distancing go out the window once they take the field?
Another major concern is that outbreaks on teams are likely to occur within position groups or units that regularly are working together on the practice field. If a team has an outbreak of six players, it isn’t likely to be one running back, one lineman, one receiver, one linebacker, one cornerback, and one safety. It’s more likely that you’d see all six in the same position group, since they are constantly around each other. Even with an expanded practice squad, most teams couldn’t survive a hit that big to one position group. If that happens, do teams just have to forfeit games until they are better? Are they forced to just sign and play guys off the street? Would you want Patrick Mahomes playing behind an offensive line made up of mostly guys off the street?
There are already concerns about players working out together on their own during the offseason. The NFLPA recently advised players not to work out together during the offseason because of the virus. The following is from ESPN’s story on the NFLPA’s recommendation:
"Around 10 NFL teams have reported positive coronavirus tests for at least one of their players, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, prompting the NFLPA to release the statement. The NFL and NFLPA share a database that updates each time a team reports a positive test, and there’s been an uptick over the last two weeks."
While NFL workouts are still only happening on the players’ own time, look at what has happened with college programs as they have brought students back to campus for workouts. Locally, Kansas State recently had to suspend workouts for two weeks after they had 14 positive tests. What happens if/when that occurs during the actual season? A couple of the top programs in all of college football have also had major issues already as both LSU and Clemson have seen double digit positive tests and dozens of players having to be quarantined. Here’s a quote from Paul Myerberg’s recent piece for USA Today on positive tests in college programs.
"Overall, USA TODAY Sports identified 37 universities with FBS programs, roughly a quarter of the FBS, that have reported positive cases of COVID-19 among athletes and/or staff at a time when the overall number of cases is soaring in several states."
There have been similar issues with Major League Baseball teams that have had players in to get ready for their season and then having to shut workouts down because of positive tests in the organization.
I’m not trying to be an alarmist or Debbie downer here; I’m trying to be a realist. The model of having players exposed to the public at large and then coming together to play organized team sports isn’t going well in the United States right now. I understand that the logistics and player backlash that would come with isolating players during the season will be huge and complicated, but I believe it is the only realistic way to expect 2,080 players to go to work starting in late July and make it all the way to the Super Bowl in February without having to shut things down.
In Seifert’s same piece on five big coronavirus concerns for the 2020 NFL season, he pointed out that Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College, had similar thoughts.
"Binney has advocated for the NFL to follow a “home market bubble” approach, which would largely sequester players and coaches in a local hotel for the duration of the season while subjecting them to multiple tests per week. That strategy might seem extreme at the moment, Binney said, but could prove necessary to keep the season going in November and December."
Those comments are very similar to those made recently by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. While opinions on Fauci may vary depending on political beliefs, the idea of a “bubble” approach like the NBA is using to finish their season is very likely the most realistic way to ensure a season happens in its entirety regardless of how complicated it may be to organize.
None of this is even addressing the morality of if they should be playing a game when it could expose people to Covid-19. While I don’t want to even open that can of worms up, I’ll just say that while most NFL players aren’t in a high risk category to be in danger should they catch the virus, what about older coaches and athletic trainers?
I want the 2020 NFL season to happen. I can’t imagine having to go without it. The thought of seeing my beloved Kansas City Chiefs dominating through the first couple of months of the season only to have it get shut down and wonder what could have been is enough to keep me up at night. That’s why I feel like the NFL needs to wake up and be realistic about things. Taking precautions at team facilities and testing players regularly are good policies, but I just don’t think it’s enough to get through nearly seven months of football, from camp to the Super Bowl—not if over 2,000 players are going home and then heading back to work the next day.
The NFL needs to be preparing for the worst right now, not hoping for the best. The idea of being isolated isn’t likely one that players are going to instantly be on board with. However, if given time to think about it and with millions of dollars on the line, they would likely eventually agree to it. Then, if I’m wrong, and things aren’t that bad they can always loosen restrictions. It’s a lot easier to do that than it is to start with things loose and then trying to come up with an isolation system in the middle of the season if things start getting really bad.
We may not all have the same views on Covid-19, but we all want the 2020 NFL season to happen. I just pray that the NFL is wise enough to take the necessary precautions to make sure that it does.