In the midst of the most uncertain period in the history of American sports, the NFL delivered a surprisingly unflinching message on Tuesday: The league is not only planning to have a full season in 2020 — it’s expecting that season to start on schedule.
“Our planning — our expectation — is fully directed at playing a full season starting on schedule and having a full regular season and full set of playoffs,” NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash said on a conference call, giving an update on the league’s handling of the COVID-19 fallout.
“… Am I certain? I’m not certain that I’ll be here tomorrow. But I’m planning on it, and same thing — we are planning on having a full season.”
That message of expecting all of the league’s trains to run on time by late summer was revealed after the league office had a series of conference calls with NFL executives and ownership groups. The aim: relay the message that the NFL will prepare for normalized operations to return in late summer — with training camps opening as expected in July, followed by a Hall of Fame game with fans, full preseason schedule and the Thursday night regular-season kickoff on Sept. 10. There is also no plan to alter the league’s international matchups. And all of this is being planned as if it will occur in front of the normal fan contingent.
In short, the NFL’s 2020 season is expected to be pulled off precisely as it would have been if a worldwide pandemic had never occurred.
NFL hasn’t started on contingency plans
Perhaps most remarkable at this stage is what the league hasn’t discussed.
Pash suggested that as of now, the NFL has not begun working on “break the glass” scenarios that might include a delayed start, shortened season or playing games in empty stadiums. Pash indicated the league is hesitant to create those kinds of options, apparently waiting to see the data and health advisories in the coming months.
“I really don’t know [when contingency plans will be considered],” Pash said. “A lot of it will depend on the medical and public health situation. If the modeling is as we’ve been given to understand, we may not have to get very far down that road. If things take a turn and different regulations are put in place, then we’ll have to address it in a more substantial way. But like I said, for the time being, we’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to begin on schedule.”
This appears to be a very on-brand response to a changing health environment this offseason. While the NFL pushed back the start of the league year to get a new collective bargaining agreement in place in early March, it refused to delay it further when the pandemic began to gain a foothold in the United States. Instead, the league office waited to clamp down on team operations until after franchises began taking their own measures to protect employees.
The NFL laid down league-wide restrictions on operations and travel on March 14 only after public health statements by the Centers for Disease Control and complaints that some franchises were not taking health precautions in favor of gaining a competitive advantage for the draft. And even in the wake of that discontent, the league refused to delay the start of free agency and the draft — despite grousing from personnel departments that a pause would be in the best interests of the offseason talent evaluations that surrounded both.
Even the insistence that the regular season will start on time flies in the face of other major sports events that have either postponed operations or canceled them altogether, including the Tokyo Olympics that were set to be staged from July 24 to Aug. 9 until being delayed for one full year. That timeframe should resonate with football fans, since it overlaps with what is nearly the entirety of NFL training camps this summer.
Two general managers who spoke with Yahoo Sports on Tuesday were dismissive of Pash’s remarks, sharing a unified sentiment that statements about the start of the 2020 season are essentially irrelevant.
“What answers do we have about anything right now?” one GM said. “We don’t really know anything. There’s no idea when we can even have [players] back into our building again. Whatever we say right now could be 180 degrees in the other direction in a week. …
“We have to get the whole country straightened out — or at least pretty far onto that road before anyone can really say what’s going to happen with [the NFL].”
How would league handle coronavirus testing?
That doesn’t mean coaches, executives and team owners aren’t considering what things might look like if the NFL starts without a coronavirus vaccine. There are no shortage of questions to game out if that happens, even with an option like playing games with no fans.
While that avenue would appear to offer a simple solution geared toward a massive television audience, executives still have no shortage of pitfalls to offer.
Would all employees be tested daily? If they traveled to “clean” sites for games, would they be sequestered in hotels? Would all other personnel used for broadcasts and operations be subject to the same requirements? In the event of injuries or trades, would incoming players have to be quarantined for 14-day periods? Would there be a list of free agents who were tested regularly so they would have instant availability?
And perhaps the most pressing concerns of all for the NFL’s business and legal interests: If one person involved in a game-day operation were to get sick, what would happen next? And what would the legal exposure be if it was a player or other person who then infected others?
“There’s really no bottom there right now,” another GM said, referring to the litany of questions. “We’ll just deal with it and try to figure it out, I guess. … I’m curious how [the NBA and MLB] answers some of this. That’s the upside we have over the next whatever time we’re in this. It’s like, ‘Well how are they going to do it?’ or ‘What can they pull off that we can learn from?’ ”
Until that can be answered, the NFL and the players’ union are currently hashing out the coming offseason structure, with an emphasis on what a workload can look like for players at home, to potential online meetings and whatever else the league can get accomplished without players inside their buildings. It will be a far cry from the organized team activities, passing programs and installations that usually dominate April and beyond.
For now, that’s the league’s imperfect answer to an impossibly difficult situation. All while planning for a perfect summer schedule that looks farther away than ever.
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