Coronavirus surge means once again politicians can put halt to NFL's bullish plans

·Columnist
·4 min read

In the face of a continuing surge of coronavirus cases in California, home to three NFL teams, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday ordered the closing of bars and indoor dining statewide, plus fitness centers and malls in 30 select counties.

“We’re continuing to see hospitalizations rise and we continue to see an increase in the rate of positivity in the state,” Newsom said. “We are moving back into a ‘modification mode’ of our original stay at home order.”

In Texas, home to two NFL franchises, Gov. Greg Abbott recently mandated face masks be worn in most counties and provided for restrictions on gatherings of over 10 people while warning that a continued increase in cases could result in “the necessity of closing Texas down.”

More specifically, in hard-hit Houston, the mayor has discussed the possibility of a localized two-week “step back.”

“We’re going to need a shutdown for a period of time,” Mayor Sylvester Turner predicted if there isn’t a turnaround in the spread.

The NFL is pressing on with training camp, which is slated to begin on July 28. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The NFL is pressing on with training camp, which is slated to begin on July 28. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Meanwhile, school districts in, among other NFL places, Nashville and Atlanta will have school years begin with remote learning.

Call it a retreat on the reopening.

Or call it a concern going forward for the NFL – and Major League Baseball – who may be able to draw up plans and procedures for a 2020 season, but can’t guarantee how the virus will behave or how local governments with the power to stop just about everything will react to it.

The NFL training camps are expected to open later this month and the regular season is set to begin on Sept. 10. If there is one thing this pandemic has proven it’s that predicting anything two weeks out, let alone two months, is dangerous. Things ebb and flow. Places that were once safe are now hot spots. And vice versa.

Back in April, in the early days of this, the executive officer of Santa Clara County (home to the San Francisco 49ers) said he didn’t expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

That prediction hasn’t held as the 49ers and every other NFL team are currently green-lit to play. However, it highlighted the challenges of trying to stage a normal season. Can a single county, or a single outbreak in a single market, upend everything?

Maybe you could deal with one. Maybe. What if it’s three? Will the playing of a season not be the decision of commissioner Roger Goodell but rather a fairly unknown county commissioner somewhere? Or would no elected official risk the wrath of being the person that shut down the NFL?

No one knows. No one ever knows with this thing.

The NBA and NHL have gone the bubble route in an attempt to complete their 2019-2020 seasons. Basketball is in Orlando. Hockey went to Canada (Edmonton and Toronto) where the virus is far less prevalent than the States. Those leagues can control a lot of things. If the bubble holds, then they’ll be successful.

Football can’t do that. The idea of a safe zone for 32 massive NFL operations running from late July training camp to a February Super Bowl is impossible.

Same for MLB, which is slated to begin on July 25 and especially college football, which at its highest level is played by 130 teams in 43 states in communities ranging from L.A. to Laramie.

“It is clear that current circumstances related to COVID-19 must improve,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, arguably the sport’s most influential person, about the prospect of a season.

Already the Big Ten and Pac-12 have cut their schedules to only nine conference games. Those decisions were made by the schools themselves, not local officials. That might change.

No one has cancelled anything yet. Everyone is barreling toward a season with the best intentions of normalcy. Yet pessimism sits on the horizon. An influential NFL agent told Yahoo Sports he expects the season to last 6-10 games before the patchwork of decision-making becomes untenable. It’s just an informed prediction, though.

What’s clear is that whatever the NFL’s plans are, they can be upended by state and county politicians who are reacting to localized circumstances that don’t care about national television contracts.

That leaves the NFL to attempt what amounts to a seven-month slog (training camp to Super Bowl) dealing not just the back-and-forth of a pandemic, but the whims and opinions of politicians who don’t answer to them.

What the past couple weeks have shown is that what’s open today isn’t always what will be open tomorrow.

Buckle up.

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