The NFL has continuously stated that they are ready for a 2020 season. However, a professional season in the midst of a global pandemic is uncharted territory. Along with many others, I have huge concerns behind an NFL season. And as of now, the NFL has not addressed these concerns. This article will address some of my concerns while offering solutions to mitigate player risk.
Need for a Bubble
The main issue I see in the NFL’s 2020 plan is the lack of a bubble. Players are required to attend live training camp practices but are free to go home to a normal life. This plan is concerning given the difficulty in monitoring the player’s personal lives. In contrast, the NBA is holding training camp and the season in a bubble, dramatically lowering their player’s exposure to the outside world. The bubble is appealing because you have some level of control over player interactions. Without a bubble, you have no control of player interactions outside facilities.
With the NFL’s plan, training camp will be held in current team facilities. However, If players aren’t being tightly monitored after they leave their training facilities, they could bring the virus to the team. Also, the virus has an incubation period anywhere between 7 and 14 days. If a player gets the virus in training camp, it could spread throughout the team close to the start of the season.
The hard task for the NFL is that they don’t have the capacity to hold players in an isolated bubble environment. Fields are much larger than courts, and there aren’t too many facilities with 20+ professional-grade fields, equipment, weight rooms, and dining halls. The NBA acted swiftly to reserve Disney World Orlando for its 2020 season. The NFL was not so lucky and is forced to have individual team’s police their players. This is problematic, to say the least. Given the NFL won’t find a bubble, they should do everything in their power to ensure the following concerns are properly addressed.
Expand the Practice Squad
The NFL must expand the amount of practice squad players beyond the current limit of 12. With the global pandemic, it is almost inevitable that a player will get the coronavirus. Combined with the natural injuries that occur in a typical season, teams will need more guys on deck to account for these injuries.
However, the problem with expanding the practice squad is that it expands the number of players needed to be apart of the NFL season. Given the pandemic, the fewer players to keep track of the better. Having more players increases the likelihood of a player acquiring the virus. There’s a huge risk for expanding the practice squad limit, but a necessary risk in order to ensure rosters stay intact.
Protect Game Day Personnel
A forgotten aspect of the NFL’s COVID-19 situation is the referee. In a normal season, referees travel cross country for games. Obviously, this puts the NFL at huge risk if referees are unnecessarily exposed to the virus. The NFL has to address game day personnel, referees included.
One solution is assigning referees to teams. Under this solution, these referees would travel to road games with the team while also covering the team’s home games. I don’t like this strategy because it creates biases. An objective ref exposed to only one team every week will be naturally inclined to make calls in favor of the team. On the opposite spectrum, some refs will see the bias and adjust their calls which also hurts the integrity of the game.
Instead, I like the idea of regional-based referees. Under this solution, you could have refs assigned to the various regions across the country. For example, a group of refs might be confined to the midwest where they cover games in Minnesota, Green Bay, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Chicago. Another group could be assigned to the southwest to cover games in Arizona, Las Vegas, and LA. This would reduce, but not eliminate the travel concern.
As of now, NFL players are able to interact with their family and friends outside the game. The concern with this is that family members are going through their daily routines as normal citizens. Exposure to family members could bring COVID-19 into NFL circles affecting the viability of key players and teams. The NBA is restricting family access into the bubble until the second round of the playoffs. This means that training camp and the first few weeks of the season will be only NBA personnel in the Orlando Bubble. Overall, it’s about 50+ days players will be away from their families. Another benefit of the NBA’s plan is that by the second round of the playoffs, there will only be eight teams remaining of about 20-25 personnel combined. At that point, it’s easier to contain and keep eyes on family members.
Because the bubble is not a solution for the NFL, they should attempt to regulate families. Not in the way as far as telling families what they can and cannot do but instead by educating to families the risks their negligence could have on the NFL season. In doing so, you will have immediate nuclear family members more likely to adhere to social distancing. Regardless, the NFL needs to seriously address this issue.
Eliminate Preseason Games
While preseason games would generate more viewership than any other season due to the lack of recent sports, teams should abandon the option for the sake of public health. Shortening the season shortens the potential risk for the virus from spreading throughout the team. Ultimately this could save lives. The NFL believes that preseason games are important to evaluate players and to test and adjust to new gameday protocols. If the NFL and NFLPA can’t come to an agreement, its best to find a middle-ground. While I prefer no preseason games, a compromise gives teams the opportunity to adjust to the new safety measures while getting players adequate time to get adjusted to the season.
Deny Fan Access to Games
I am very critical of NFL teams allowing fans in the stands. No matter the distance, it is a risk to allow fans access to stadiums. There has to be a way to minimize overcrowding at entry and exit points. Also, tailgating and food vendors need to be shutdown. While fans acquire minimal risk when sitting in the stands, the main problem is getting fans into the stadium. Assume a fan sneezes near an entry door. In a short amount of time, everyone walking through that door could be exposed to the virus. Given other league’s protocols, it makes more sense to deny fans access to stadiums.
Enforce a Disciplinary System
The disciplinary system for players that break social distancing measures needs to be harsh. The biggest risk to the entire NFL season are players going out to bars or going out and about without a mask. It’s inevitable that players will get COVID-19 after following safety precautions. But players caught without a mask, similar to the Russell Westbrook situation, need to be fined. Accountability starts first with the players. The league needs a way to hold these guys accountable.
Taking away a game pay or implementing a $50,000 fine should be adequate. Catching COVID-19 combined with a hefty fine seems fair enough for reckless behavior. But the NFL seriously needs to instill to their players that there will be consequences for not adhering to social distancing.
Incentivize Player Reporting
The NFL has faced harsh criticism in recent years surrounding improper concussion protocols. For example, teams and referees would not check players who are displaying symptoms of concussions. Instead, it was under the onus of players to report their concussion symptoms. Yet, players often stayed in the games choosing not to report their symptoms. I fear the same for the Coronavirus.
For example, let’s say a quarterback is starting to show symptoms of the virus. It’s a key divisional game with playoff implications. I think it’s naive to assume the quarterback will be so quick to report their symptoms. Because of this, the NFL needs to either increase the amount of testing, every other day or twice a week, or guarantee players’ salaries for those forced to miss games.
The same concept applies to players with compromised immune symptoms. Let’s say a player has an autoimmune disease that has never affected their ability to play football but makes them more susceptible to coronavirus complications. The NFL needs to provide exceptions, like the NBA, to players with preexisting conditions. In doing so, high-risk players would receive compensation for foregoing the NFL season. Exploring guaranteed contracts for all players could increase the incentive to report symptoms. The NFL should explore these options.
I believe that the NFL could have a season in 2020. However, there are some major obstacles standing in their way. Is the current method where players are free to live normal lives the proper method? Should there be a bubble? How are they going to police players and families that don’t practice social distancing? What is the protocol for sick players?
The safest way to hold an NFL season is within a hypothetical bubble, similar to the NHL and NBA. However, the country lacks a large bubble environment filled with professional-grade fields, training facilities, and hotel space. Therefore, the NFL has to rely on teams to ensure their facilities and players act in accordance with COVID-19 requirements.
Some of the biggest proposals the NFL must consider is how they discipline players for violating social distancing measures, how they ensure referee safety, how they incentivize players reporting systems, and how to deal with the preseason situation. Overall, the NFL can work, but they have to get all of these strategies right.