It has been 102 days since Jeff Pash, the NFL's executive vice president and general counsel, announced an unexpectedly bold plan for the 2020 season amid a coronavirus pandemic that was only starting.
"All of our discussions," Pash said, "all of our focus, has been on a normal, traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and a full set of playoffs. That's our focus."
At the same time, Pash acknowledged the obvious. The date was March 31, which meant the NFL had months to figure out how to pull it off. But that time has dwindled. Rookies and selected veterans are scheduled to report to training camp on July 21, with full squads anticipated one week later.
Can the NFL pull off an on-time start to training camp, much less a season? In the time since Pash made his announcement, the United States flattened its daily virus count -- only to see a surge in infections and hospitalizations this summer in Southern states. Major League Soccer and the National Women's Soccer League are the only major professional team sports to make it back on the field, although MLB, the NBA and the NHL have entered the early stages of their return.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL's chief medical officer, said Thursday night that the NFL hopes to plow a road for the entire country as it deals with the pandemic.
"I think this is important not just for the NFL or for professional sports -- not even for sports at all levels," Sills said at a virtual meeting of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. "I think what we are trying to do -- which is to find a way to mitigate risk and to coexist with this virus -- this is really key information for schools, for businesses, for all segments of society. I think we have a unique opportunity but also a responsibility to use the platform and resources of the NFL to really study and learn and to take that knowledge and apply it for the benefit of the other segments of the society. That is what we plan to do."
Some players, however, maintain deep concerns about the safety of playing amid the pandemic:
We all want to play football. We also have an obligation to our families .. family comes first so to say " We taking some of your money and we don't have the answers to whether you're going to be safe" comes off as disrespectful to most .. it's "take and take".where is the give?— Adrian Amos (@_SmashAmos31) July 10, 2020
Let's review what we know about the NFL's plans to return and recognize how much more must be decided in the coming weeks in order for Pash's goal to be realized. We'll return weekly to update you on the league's progress.
What we know about the 2020 NFL season
1. All training camps will be at team facilities this year. When they report, football personnel -- players, coaches, equipment managers, medical staffers -- will largely be isolated from the remainder of team employees. They will have a separate, designated entrance to the building. Practice fields, locker rooms, athletic and medical rooms, meeting rooms and weight rooms will all be restricted to people classified as Tier 1 (players and other people who need at least 10 minutes of daily access to restricted areas) or Tier 2 (people who need periodic access to restricted areas). There can be a maximum of 60 Tier 1 designees, not including players, on a daily basis.
2. Teams have been asked to retrofit their facilities as much as possible to account for 6 feet of physical distancing. Details will vary based on facility design, but in general, it will mean rearranging and/or expanding locker rooms into temporary areas. The league also has provided instructions on creating one-way traffic through hallways. It has mandated individual appointments with athletic trainers and limited weight room workouts to 15 or fewer players. Virtual meetings are encouraged, and in-person meetings are limited to 20 people. All players and staff must wear a mask when inside the facility, although players are not required to wear them during workouts.
3. Team showers must accommodate 6 feet of distancing, even if that means shutting off some shower heads. Saunas and steam rooms will be closed.
4. Teams must maintain a two-week supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical officials.
5. This arrangement will not be a "bubble" like the plans in motion with the NHL and NBA. By agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA), players will have the option to stay at a team-sponsored hotel, but will not be required to. They can spend their nights at home, except on the night before preseason games. (More on preseason games in a moment.) Teams will be required to hold a safety information session with family members, among other education efforts designed to teach employees how to minimize risk of infection outside the facility.
6. Teams must have a designated area to isolate any team employee who demonstrated symptoms, and then a plan for testing and removing them safely from the facility. A symptomatic employee who tests positive must avoid the team facility for at least 10 days and can't return until 72 hours have passed since symptoms last occurred. An asymptomatic positive test must stay away for 10 days, or else five days since the initial positive test and after two consecutive negative tests with at least 24 hours in between.
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7. In the event of a positive test, the NFL has contracted with IQVIA -- a third-party firm that also analyzes league injury data -- for contact tracing to determine whom the person has been in close contact with during the incubation period. If there is a fear of in-game exposure, the NFL will make use of radio-frequency identification tracking devices embedded in each player's shoulder pads to determine whom that player was within 6 feet of during the game. Anyone who engages in team activities will be required to wear a Kinexon proximity recording tracking device, which would allow contact tracers to find the close contacts of someone who tested positive.
8. Protocols will be enforced by unannounced inspections, and club officials who knowingly violate the policy will be subject to discipline.
9. Early training camp practices will look different. Because the entire offseason program was conducted virtually, with no actual football work, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed that there should be a longer acclimatization process. It will begin with two days designated for medical exams and equipment fitting, and more than a week could pass before players participate in full team drills.
10. No fans or visitors will be allowed at team facilities during training camp. Teams can host up to two practices at stadiums with fans in the stands, providing state and local regulations allow it.
11. The NFL and the NFLPA are in disagreement about preseason games. The NFL has made plans for each team to play two games, one at home and one away, around the weekends of Aug. 20-24 and Aug. 27-31. The NFLPA's board of player representatives voted to endorse a plan for no games, an issue that NFLPA president JC Tretter escalated into public view this week. The NFL does not believe it needs the NFLPA's approval to play the games and believes them important for two reasons: (1) To evaluate players and (2) to test and adjust gameday protocols before the regular season begins.
"Wear a mask and socially distance if you want to see football and all sports come back."— Golic and Wingo (@GolicAndWingo) July 8, 2020
-NFLPA President @JCTretter imploring the country to do its part because the NFL doesn't exist inside a bubble. pic.twitter.com/513nP9cadq
12. If there are preseason games, they will follow the same protocol the NFL and NFLPA have established for regular-season games. Visiting teams will travel the day before the game. Stadium locker rooms must be retrofitted to ensure social distancing, as much as possible. Masks for coaches and nonparticipating players are encouraged but not required. Teams must maintain 6 feet from each other after games, eliminating postgame handshakes and jersey swaps.
13. Most media interviews will be conducted via video conference, and locker rooms will be closed to reporters. Reporters placed into "Tier 2M" will have access to parts of the team facility and practice field, provided they pass screening protocols.
What we don't know about the 2020 NFL season
1. The biggest unanswered question is how the NFL and NFLPA will deal with the strong likelihood of reduced 2020 revenues. There have been some discussions -- the NFLPA considered a proposal to put 35% of salaries in escrow a nonstarter -- but nothing close to an agreement. The NFL's salary cap is designed to spread the gains and losses among owners and players by an agreed-upon ratio, but that would lead to a big drop in cap figures for 2021. The sides are well aware of, and hope to avoid, the spectacle that MLB made of its economic negotiations.
2. As of now, there are no financial accommodations for players or other team employees who want to opt out of the season, either because of preexisting conditions or reticence with the safety protocols. Would they lose their jobs? Be placed on unpaid leave? Could they be paid a reduced salary? Otherwise, many people in the NFL would be left to choose between their health and being paid.
3. Details aren't clear on how the NFL will account for what could be significant roster churn based on infections and isolation time. Expanded active rosters and bigger practice squads are both in play. The league might also need to devise a new reserve classification so that players who are infected or in isolation (1) don't count against roster limits or (2) are not subject to the three-player limit for activations from injured reserve.
4. Some details of the testing program haven't been finalized, most notably the weekly frequency. That number could be influenced by the delays other sports have faced in receiving results. Long waits for results reduce the effectiveness of testing in minimizing infection and increase the possibility of spread.
5. Because the preseason issue hasn't been resolved, details of the acclimatization process have not been finalized. The NFL and NFLPA agree that training camp will look different, but they aren't yet sure how.
6. There has been some discussion of changing the way game officials are assigned to games, but no plans are final. One idea has been to assign them by regions based on where they live, in order to minimize travel.
7. The NFL and NFLPA have been working with vendors on a face shield that would be attached to helmets and could minimize spread of the virus during a game. Some players, including J.J. Watt, have expressed concerns about the potential for restricted breathing and potential fogging. It's unlikely they will be made mandatory, and it's uncertain if they will be available for use at all.
8. The NFL has proposed fining players who violate health and safety protocols, and potentially putting the rest of the team at risk, but the NFLPA has not agreed to it.
9. The NFL will allow each team to determine its policy for allowing fans into stadiums for games. But all that is known for sure is that the first eight rows of every stadium will be tarped off for distancing purposes. Because state and local guidelines have changed several times this summer, plans for fans remain in flux.