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The NFL’s preferred management style is to never make a decision before it has to. But with the scheduled openings of training camps upon us, that time has arrived.
Does it make sense to try to start a football season with cases of COVID-19 surging in the United States, including in NFL cities such as Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, and until the last week or so, Phoenix?
To me, the answer is clear. No.
Delay the start a month or so. Wait to see if Americans heed encouragement and directives to wear masks, which the head of the Centers for Disease Control said could allow us to get the virus under control in four to eight weeks.
And it’s becoming increasingly clear that the NFL isn’t ready to open camps in a way that’s safe for players, coaches, team employees and their families.
The league and its union haven’t agreed on much when it comes to opening training camps safely. How often will players be tested? What is the quarantine protocol? How will practices be structured given that an entire offseason was missed?
The two sides are talking about these issues now, but a lot of ground has to be covered to reach an agreement before players are due to report. Rookies are due to check in next week, with most full squads scheduled to start July 28.
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How far apart are the two sides? NFLPA president JC Tretter, a center for the Browns, gave an indication in a conference call with reporters Friday morning.
What happens, Tretter asked, if a center tests positive for COVID-19 on a Friday, two days before a game? What if the positive test comes immediately after a practice in which they did center stuff: huddle with teammates, participate in offensive drills with other linemen and block defenders.
What’s that? Thirty or so teammates that he had direct contact with?
“If they’re all in quarantine for the next couple days, what does Sunday’s game look like?” Tretter said. “Those are the questions that the league needs to offer their opinion on how this will move forward.
“When you talk about what changes need to be made, maybe the schedule of how the week will look needs to be different to monitor what type of close contact you have and avoiding those situations where one positive test on a wrong day late in the week derails an entire team.”
In that conference call, Tretter and DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, emphasized that player safety issues were the priorities in talks with the league. Concerns about issues such as declining revenues affecting next year’s cap are secondary.
On Thursday night, Tretter participated in a conference call with doctors from teams in COVID-19 hotspots.
With a couple of exceptions, those doctors said it was safe for training camps to open, Smith and Tretter said.
We don’t know the identity of the exceptions, but if there is even one area deemed not ready, it impacts the entire league. It doesn’t work if, say, the 49ers, the Cardinals’ first opponent this season, are able to open camp and the Cardinals aren’t.
Tradition is the only reason for training camps to open now rather than a month from now. Why open them as scheduled and run a higher risk that an outbreak on even one team could shut things down before a game is played?
The union, however, isn’t pushing for the season to be delayed. Smith said the players don’t make those decisions because teams “own the plant.”
But the union hasn’t hesitated before to advise the NFL how to operate. Refusing to do so now is like letting your family pick the spot for takeout food tonight, then complaining later that they ordered kung pao beef instead of chicken.
Friday’s call lasted more than 90 minutes. There was posturing by Smith, who can fill a news conference with legalese and answers to questions that weren’t asked. And the NFL likely would disagree with much of what was said on the call.
But Smith made salient points, too, including near the end of the call when he said the NFL’s fate in 2020 wasn’t entirely in its own hands.
“What’s good for the country is good for sports,” he said. “As simple as something like wearing a mask will have probably the most significant impact on the extent, or whether sports will return in this country.”
So why not wait a month to see if Americans will acquire the additional maturity and concern for each other it takes to wear masks?
Neither one, delaying the season or wearing a mask, requires a sacrifice.