Coronavirus: The NFL cannot let the hunger for live sports overshadow player safety

It just doesn’t add up.

The idea that NFL players are going to be able to return to team facilities, return to practices and return to games without incredibly restrictive rules in place just doesn’t seem possible.

On Monday morning, NFL Network reported that “several” Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys players had tested positive for the coronavirus, including Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott.

And this is before they’ve returned to work.

Many of us are itching for sports to start again, but our selfish desires could potentially put thousands of people at risk, and beyond that pulling off any semblance of a real season seems incredibly difficult.

Let’s start with the players. NFL players are young, fit and healthy, but the coronavirus does not discriminate: Denver Broncos star Von Miller revealed roughly two months ago that he’d tested positive for the disease and that even after taking 17 days off to rest and recover, he still had trouble breathing. Miller has asthma, which certainly complicates things when you contract a disease that attacks the respiratory system, but do we know how many other NFL players have it, too?

Even if they don’t have asthma, there are still players with health issues they’ve learned to live with that could be negatively impacted by COVID-19, and young adults in general are still at risk of contracting the disease. Data shows that the black community has been hardest hit by the coronavirus, and 70 percent of NFL players are black.

Any impact on a player’s ability to breathe in a sport that requires so much physical exertion is dangerous.

Will NFL teams be allowed to keep the full 90-man training camp roster for the entire season and the league alter its usual rules about injured reserve? It seems like it would need to happen if multiple players are having to lay low for a week or four or more to recover if they contract the coronavirus.

Chicago Bears players warm up during an NFL football training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill., Sunday, July 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Chicago Bears players warm up during training camp in 2019. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Will players be required to spend the entirety of the season away from family, cloistered in a hotel or some other lodging setup? Because that seems like the only sensible way to handle things — but that puts expectant fathers at risk of not being there to see the birth of children, or fathers not being able to see the children they already have — and imagine the burden on their spouses.

An asymptomatic player who goes home or visits a parent puts all those people at risk.

And what of the numerous others who make a team run, many of whom are middle aged or older? A brief home recovery for Elliott could mean a trip to the hospital for the Cowboys’ 56-year-old head coach Mike McCarthy or Miller’s head coach, 61-year-old Vic Fangio. Just how large would the protective bubble be? Training staff? Equipment staff? Would team food service workers not be allowed to go to their homes? If teams do nothing but travel between facilities and a team hotel, they could still come in contact with hotel staff, putting more people at risk.

None of this even gets into the fallacy of thinking that football players, no matter how cloistered, won’t just be passing the disease among teammates and opponents. The airborne coronavirus can be transmitted through saliva — the same saliva that linemen spew when they’re battling at the line of scrimmage, or a receiver releases when he’s puffing down the sideline to catch up to a deep ball.

The NFL is working with sunglasses manufacturer Oakley to develop a full facemask to try to protect players on the field, which could help lower incidents, but isn’t foolproof. It’s not clear if the masks would be ready in time for the start of the season or if players would be required to wear them.

There are so many questions, and the logistics — or lack of logistics — just don’t make much sense right now.

But don’t just take our word for it: NFL Players Association leadership held a call Monday with player agents. Executive director DeMaurice Smith and Thom Mayer, the NFLPA’s medical director, indicated there is still a lot to figure out — and with training camps scheduled to open in six weeks, there’s not a lot of time to get that done.

“We can’t figure out how to fit the virus into football, we have to figure out how we’re going to fit football into the virus,” Mayer said, via NJ Advance Media. “This is a badass virus.”

Mayer said that players will be tested three times a week for the coronavirus, and that he’s 90 percent certain a saliva-based test will be available by the end of July.

It’s understandable that in a league where the average career is so short — less than four years — that many players would want to play. But is it worth pushing ahead for the NFL if hundreds of people become infected? If one player or assistant coach or the kindly older man who’s worked to clean up the locker room for decades has to spend time in an ICU or worse?

The NFL can create all of the precautions it wants, but there’s no way to guarantee that they’ll be followed to the letter, or that even if they are that they’ll prevent illness.

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