NFL on the clock with COVID-19 safety concerns, whether it admits it or not

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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When it comes to the NFL’s return, DeMaurice Smith is 100% right.

“We don’t believe that the right way of looking at this is somehow bending COVID to football,” Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said Friday in a video conference with members of the Pro Football Writers of America. “We’ve got to bend football to the virus.”

But days before the first NFL teams are scheduled to report for training camp, one very real question remains: Can football truly bend to be played during the coronavirus pandemic?

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The NFL thinks so, at least according to Smith.

On a Thursday conference call with NFLPA leadership, Smith said NFL team doctors, “with a couple of reservations,” said “they felt that it was safe to open training camp” in July.

Lions defensive linemen go through drills during joint practice in training camp on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, in Allen Park.

What those reservations are isn’t clear, but with the pandemic raging across the country, with hot spots in major NFL markets like Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Houston, “safe” seems to be taking on a very new meaning.

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“They provided their medical reasons, some of the things we agreed with, some of the things we may not agree to.” Smith said. “But overall, they gave their medical opinion that it was safe to open training camp. And that’s where we are.”

Smith did not offer his opinion on whether it’s safe to play football now, despite repeated questions about the subject. But both he and NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, a center for the Cleveland Browns, were clear in noting it’s not their decision to return now.

“Remember, the league is management,” Smith said. “They have the exclusive right of, just like somebody who owns a plant, when does it open, when does it close, what our hours are, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. The CBA dictates wages, hours, working conditions and, generally and explicitly in this case, we’ve made revisions about being in a position to approve the infectious disease response plans for the teams.”

Feb 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith before Super Bowl LI between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium.

It’s the nuts and bolts of those plans – the rules that surround not just starting but finishing the 2020 season – that remain an issue at a time when the focus would otherwise be on football.

The NFL has implemented measures to encourage social distancing, including reconfigured locker rooms and limits on the number of team employees allowed to have contact with players, and on Friday the league released educational videos for players and families about the risks of COVID-19 and best practices to stay healthy.

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But with Detroit Lions rookies scheduled to report to Allen Park next week, and veterans to follow on July 28, players still don’t have answers on several important topics, including opt-out provisions, frequency of testing – the NFLPA wants daily testing, while the league has suggested testing about every other day – and maybe most importantly, treat-and-trace protocols.

“These are questions that we’ve brought up to the league because they’re going to have huge effects on how the season works,” Tretter said. “There is a quarantine period if you’re in close contact of someone who tested positive, so a question that we’ve asked is, if a center tests positive on a Friday and there’s a quarantine period for all of his close contacts, well, if I just came from a practice where I’ve been in a huddle with all my offensive teammates, been during individual drills with all my linemen, been blocking the defensive linemen and linebackers all afternoon, well, aren’t we talking about 35 guys who’ve been in close contact with me?

“If they’re all in quarantine for the next couple days, what does Sunday’s game look like? And those are the questions that the league needs to offer their opinion on how this will move forward.”

A large American flag displayed on the field during the national anthem before the game between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019, in Detroit.

Tretter said teams need to consider changing the workweek schedule to avoid putting players in “situations where one positive test on a long day late in the week derails an entire team,” and he said that’s one of the reasons why players are pushing so hard to eliminate preseason games.

(The NFL has insisted on playing two preseason games per team, to give every team a dry run for new coronavirus-related stadium protocols; players also want a longer acclimation period in August to keep the injury rate down after formal offseason workout programs were canceled in the spring.)

Ultimately, playing football in the NFL is a job, and like everyone who works for a living, players will have a decision to make: How much risk are they willing to take to get on the field this fall?

So far, a reported 72 NFL players have tested positive for COVID-19, 2.5% of the workforce. No doubt, that number will increase when camps open and players are subject to widespread testing.

Smith said he does not know of anyone planning to opt out of the season, though surely some players will given the nature of their jobs, the money they’ve already earned and the high-risk category they or their family members fall in.

“Every decision we make this year needs to be made through a medical lens,” Tretter said. “What’s the safest and healthiest way we can perform? So as we look through all these issues, the only way we’re going to be able to make it through a full season is if that’s the criteria in which we make our decisions.”

Even then, there are no guarantees.

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