How NFLPA shifted its COVID-19 testing fight in response to threat of cancellations, players' demands

As the NFL announced a new arrangement for the testing of COVID-19 this week, the league and its players agreed to protocols that differed significantly from the setup previously utilized this season. The plan also contrasted greatly from the 2020 practice of daily testing, which NFL Players Association leaders believed provided the most effective detection and spread mitigation tool last season and unsuccessfully lobbied for again this year.

The latest testing protocols consist of five different modifications:

  • The elimination of weekly testing for vaccinated personnel, but continued daily testing for unvaccinated players.

  • The testing of any symptomatic vaccinated individuals.

  • The testing of anyone deemed a high-risk close contact of someone that has tested positive

  • Voluntarily testing for any vaccinated individual desiring more frequent testing

  • Strategic, targeted spot testing of the vaccinated.

This less stringent testing system was long preferred by the NFL's team owners. Last week the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones predicted that in the near future, the league would shift to only test vaccinated individuals who exhibited symptoms of COVID-19.

But the NFLPA’s leadership team viewed such a shift as unwise.

And as 140-plus players league-wide tested positive for COVID-19 in a three-day span last week, the union issued an I-told-you-so reminder via Twitter last Wednesday that read in part, “The NFL decided to take away a critical weapon in our fight against the transmission of COVID-19 despite our union's call for daily testing months ago. We're talking to our player leadership & to the NFL about potential changes to the protocols so that we can complete the season.”

In discussions with NFL officials last week, the NFLPA leaders also verbalized their belief that a return to uniform daily testing was the best way to minimize outbreaks at team facilities.

But just two days later, the union and league had agreed to the above drastically different parameters.

What happened? How and why did the players union make an about-face and relent on those daily testing demands? USA TODAY Sports talked with several people familiar with the discussions between the league and union, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the negotiations, for a clearer picture of how the new protocols materialized.

NFL logo is seen on a football packaging in Los Angeles.
NFL logo is seen on a football packaging in Los Angeles.

With the Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns and Washington Football Team all experiencing outbreaks that featured 20-plus positive cases in each locker room, and facing the possibility of being forced to forfeit their games last weekend, the NFLPA pivoted away from a push for daily testing and instead worked to ensure those games would be postponed rather than canceled.

The NFL stated during the offseason that games would not be rescheduled to account for competitive disadvantages and that teams with outbreaks spurred by unvaccinated players would instead have to either make do with limited rosters or forfeit.

Even with the the outbreaks largely among vaccinated players, a forfeit imposed by the league would have translated into lost game checks for the players on those teams, which greatly concerned a number of those scheduled to play in the Raiders-Browns, Washington-Eagles and Seahawks-Rams games.

Another concern: The safety of the last-minute roster additions who would have to play without adequate practice and acclimation periods of time.

Citing that factor, some veterans members of the Rams, Browns and Washington organizations preferred to forfeit while others – both on those teams and across the league – strongly urged the NFLPA to fight for schedule changes and a change in the return-to-action requirements so asymptomatic players who had tested positive didn’t have to wait the full quarantine window or have to produce two negative tests 24 hours apart.

In the minds of many NFL players, avoiding the forfeited games and game checks and hammering out an agreement on a faster return to action ranked much higher on the list of matters to resolve.

So, NFLPA officials went back to the league with the goal of saving the game checks and to find the next best, science-based alternative to the current testing and return-to-action setups.

“They were closer (to canceling the games) than I would like to be comfortable about,” NFLPA president JC Tretter, who also is the Browns’ starting center, told USA TODAY Sports. “The issue was really the same precedent as last year: move games, and we did it all last year, but watching spread of virus. … We had live outbreaks in buildings, and positives weren’t stopping. It was part of the discussion entire time.

“A lot of people framed it as, ‘They’re waiting for guys to come off the list.’ But that was never really a concern of ours,” Tretter continued. “It was that we could not put guys back in the locker room when we knew the virus was still spreading. We needed days of negative tests to know that nobody else was positive in the building, and then making sure the game was rescheduled to a time that ensured those guys had enough time to prepare to play.”

As the league rolled out the new testing protocols, rumors spread that the NFLPA’s only bargaining chip to securing the postponements was to give up the daily testing demands.

But Tretter called such claims false.

“It wasn’t a trade,” he said. “We sat back and figured out; we had two major issues. One, how do we get out of the current situation that we’re in with rising outbreaks? And two, how do we move forward for the rest of the season? … Everybody prioritized and got on the same page to find the middle ground."

A person familiar with the discussions, speaking to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to comment publicly on the matter, said that even if the NFLPA had stuck with those requests for daily testing, the owners – who last year footed a combined bill of roughly $95 million for daily testing of all players and football staff – likely would not have relented in their opposition.

However, the players union wasn’t alone in encouraging the postponement of the three games. The owners of the Rams, Browns and Washington also agreed postponements were necessary, the person said.

This helped the case of the NFLPA, and eventually, the NFL granted the request.

The Browns' game was moved from Saturday to Monday, and Washington's and the Rams’ games shifted to Tuesday. Those teams still had to rely on backups in key spots as a number of veterans remained unable to test out of quarantine, even under the new thresholds. Cleveland had to start third-string quarterback Nick Mullens and Washington turned to quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who had joined the team only days before.

But the priority of avoiding missed game checks was met.

Another driving factor in the NFLPA’s abandoned push for daily testing involved the backlash from players. Not only were most of them opposed to such a proposal, they also expressed displeasure with the league’s decision to elevate other measures, including indoor mask mandates for all individuals, eliminating team meals, making all meetings virtual and banning players from visiting family and friends on road trips.

Because the job of the union is to represent the interests of membership, Tretter and the rest of the NFLPA leadership team and their medical experts engaged the league on the best possible alternatives that would maintain the goal of ensuring effective detection and maximum player safety.

“Through this whole process, it has been a busy seven days, and part of it was figuring out where our membership stood on the issue,” Tretter said. “Our players are really a microcosm of society. Guys all over the map on what they think is best moving forward. The vast majority feel ‘I’ve done everything asked of me, I’ve gotten vaccinated and you guys tell me if I’m vaccinated, I’m not at high risk of getting really sick, so if that’s the case, I don’t want to do more testing. I’m ready to go back to living somewhat normally.’

"But that being said, there was still a minority – a sizeable minority – that said, ‘I’m not ready for that.’ Well, if that’s how our membership is split, how do we come to the best balance? That was the goal.”

Tretter said that he believes the arrangement reached accomplishes all of the goals of the union and league. NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills agreed.

“I would not describe it as we are stopping testing, or we are doing less testing,” Sills told reporters in a conference call Saturday. “I would simply say that we are trying to test smarter and test in a more strategic fashion."

Under this setup, there’s always the risk that players experiencing symptoms will not be forthcoming and subject themselves to testing because they want to play. But Tretter said that risk existed during the weekly testing setup as well.

He pointed to the way this week has played out since the new testing levels were adapted, which have seen dozens of players get placed on the COVID-19 reserve list since Sunday as a sign that players with symptoms are indeed reporting them to their team and subjecting themselves to testing.

Some of those positives also came as a result of some teams having instituted mandatory daily testing on their own.

A day after speaking with USA TODAY Sports, Tretter announced that he himself had woken up with cold-like symptoms and reported to Browns headquarters for testing only to learn he also had contracted the virus. He encouraged his fellow players to continue to be vigilant in efforts to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.

It remains to be seen if this method of detection will better help prevent spread within organizations. But both the league and players union feel encouraged by the progress made, although reservations and great uncertainties remain.

“What we should be looking at the rest of the season is we’re going to need to work together, as we did early on in the pandemic when this was very new … And now, this new variant is kind of a complete change from what we’ve seen over the last year and a half, and now we need to do that same thing,” Tretter said. “We should leave ourselves plenty of room to move, plenty of room to make good decisions that will enable us to reach our goal of playing all the games, and crown a Super Bowl champion. That’s the goal both sides can and have always gotten behind, and what we need to continue to work together on successfully.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How NFL Players Association shifted its COVID-19 testing fight