On March 31, Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president and general counsel announced “All of our discussions, 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.”
With the recent uptick in coronavirus cases across parts of the country, can the NFL pull off an on-time start to training camp, much less a season? Only time will tell, but here’s what we know and don’t know about the upcoming planned season.
Here’s What We Know
- All training camps will be at team facilities this year. 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.
- Teams have been asked to retrofit their facilities as much as possible to account for 6 feet of physical distancing. All players and staff must wear a mask when inside the facility, although players are not required to wear them during workouts. Players and team personnel are instructed not to share “towels, water bottles, food or clothing with others,” and any shared equipment must be cleaned after each use.
- Team showers must accommodate 6 feet of distancing, even if that means shutting off some shower heads. Saunas and steam rooms will be closed.
- Teams must maintain a two-week supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical officials.
- This arrangement will not be a “bubble” like the plans in motion with the NBA and NHL. 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.
- Players or team employees who have symptoms are instructed to immediately notify the team physician and/or trainer, immediately self-isolate in a separate room, put on a mask and be transported home to quarantine as soon as possible. A symptomatic employee who tests positive must avoid the team facility for at least 10 days, is prohibited from traveling or having any direct contact with any player or club employee other than medical staff, and can’t return until 72 hours have passed since symptoms last occurred and they have been cleared by the team physician. A person with 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. That person must also be cleared by the team physician prior to return. There will be additional cardiac screening for players who have tested positive and recovered or who test positive for COVID-19 antibodies.
- 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. Players and all team personnel, up to and including team owners, will be required to wear the contact tracing devices while at the facility, but not when they are away from it.
- Protocols will be enforced by unannounced inspections conducted jointly by the NFL and NFLPA, and club officials who knowingly violate the policy will be subject to discipline.
- Early training camp practices will look different. 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. The players are asking for 21 days of strength and conditioning work followed by 10 days of non-padded practices and then 14 days of “contact acclimation” process in which practices could be conducted with pads.
- 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, if state and local regulations allow it.
- The NFL and the NFLPA are in disagreement about preseason games. The NFL plans for each team to play 2 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 don’t want to play any games.
- 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. Players must maintain 6 feet from one another after games eliminating postgame handshakes and jersey swaps.
- 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.
- There will be new rules in place for teams while they travel, including buses operating at no more than 50% capacity, at least one open seat between passengers on team planes and no sharing of hotel rooms. All players and team personnel must wear face coverings while on the road. Players and team personnel will not be allowed to leave their hotel rooms to eat in or otherwise use restaurants that are open to the public. They may order room service or delivery from contactless food delivery services. Players and team personnel may not use public or private transportation to or in other cities, just team buses and planes. While at the hotel, no player or other member of the traveling party may have visitors in their rooms who are not members of the traveling party.
Here’s What We Don’t Know
- The biggest unanswered question is how the NFL and NFLPA will deal with the strong likelihood of reduced 2020 revenues. 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 players’ union favors a plan that would spread the revenue hit out over several years, keeping the salary cap flat or increasing it only slightly until revenues are caught up. The owners prefer to take the hit in the short term and then quickly return to the annual rate of cap growth the league has seen over the past decade. The union’s concern is the short-term impact a significant reduction would have not only on player salaries but also on players’ health benefits, which are calculated as part of the player costs under the salary cap.
- The league and union are discussing 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 put on unpaid leave? Could they be paid a reduced salary? There has been progress made in recent negotiations on the opt-out rules and there’s an expectation from both sides that a reasonable compromise can be reached there.
- 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 under consideration.
- 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. The union has asked for daily testing, and the league has proposed testing every other day. This remains a negotiating point, and there is a potential compromise that involves testing every day at the beginning of camp and then moving to less frequent testing as everyone grows more used to the protocols and safety measures at the facilities.
- 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 to minimize travel.
- 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. It’s unlikely they will be made mandatory, and it’s uncertain if they will be available for use at all.
- 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.
- The NFL will allow each team to determine its policy for allowing fans into stadiums. The Philadelphia Eagles have already decided against allowing fans. If the Miami Dolphins do allow fans they won’t allow them to tailgate. All that is known for certain 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.