Opinion: Bro hugs may be back at NFL draft, but is push for normalcy safe?

Jarrett Bell, USA TODAY

Bro hugs are back. Conceivably.

One of the messages the NFL will send in staging its three-day draft along the lakefront in Cleveland while the pandemic continues will be embodied by vaccinated Commissioner Roger Goodell having the green light to engage on the stage in the traditional fashion as he welcomes top picks.

So, here’s to some spontaneous emotion. Fist bumps. High fives. Bro hugs. This is what Goodell is eager to get back to in kicking off the draft, after announcing the picks from his basement during last year’s all-virtual draft.

"You may see some creativity there,” pondered Peter O’ Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events. “We’ll see.”

The NFL on Friday announced its final plans for the draft, beginning Thursday night, including designs to host approximately 50,000 fans per day at its Draft Experience, an interactive pop-up football theme park inside FirstEnergy Stadium.

The actual draft will be conducted at an outdoor theater constructed along Lake Erie between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Great Lakes Science Center, with 600 seated in the theater and 4,400 fans standing in an adjacent vaccinated zone. Thirteen prospects have accepted the league’s invitation to attend, without severe limitations on the size of their entourage. And like past drafts, several retired players, “NFL Legends,” will be on hand to announce the Day 2 picks.

The show is back on.

Next step toward packed stadiums?

Yes, masks, social distancing and other pandemic protocols will be in place. No, we shouldn’t expect to see the type of images of jam-packed fans — screaming, cheering and spilling beers — that marked previous outdoor drafts in Nashville, Philadelphia and other locations.

Still, it’s fair to wonder whether this urge for normalcy is happening a bit too soon as the COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 570,000 Americans continues. While vaccinations are widespread and coronavirus cases have decreased from peak numbers, there’s still a threat — and still surges of increases in various parts of the nation.

Is the NFL flirting with the potential that the draft will be a “Super Spreader” event?

"We have every confidence in the protocols and the guidance that we continue to get," said O’Reilly, alluding to input from city and state health officials and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). "We know that the pandemic is still out there and that guides our every move, but we also want to be able to point to brighter days ahead. That’s where the emphasis on vaccinations is so key."

Christian Wilkins (Clemson) celebrated with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after he was selected as the No. 13 overall pick to the Dolphins in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft.
Christian Wilkins (Clemson) celebrated with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after he was selected as the No. 13 overall pick to the Dolphins in the first round of the 2019 NFL draft.

The draft comes on the heels of two other mass gatherings at sporting events this month. Alabama’s spring football game drew approximately 48,000 fans, slightly less than 50% capacity for Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Texas Rangers opened their MLB season with approximately 38,000 fans at Globe Life Park.

It’s unknown at this point whether those events contributed to the spread of the virus, yet worth noting that the mass vaccination sites in Tarrant County, Texas, where the Rangers stadium in Arlington is located, were closed down this week.

For the NFL, the draft is the next step toward Goodell’s recent declaration that the league intends to play its 2021 season before packed stadiums again.

A setback from the Cleveland event could force the league to alter the timeline of its thinking — not to mention the threat to the public's confidence for attending large events.

"It seems like they’re doing it in a safe manner," Thomas Unnasch, an infectious disease expert at the University of South Florida, told USA TODAY Sports. "Everything is outdoors. And down by the lake, the air moves pretty well.

"Moving forward, I’m more concerned about the season. They’ve got to not set plans in stone. They’ll have to be nimble. For the season, a lot is going to depend on what happens over the summer."

Unnasch, who consulted with Tampa officials involved in the staging of Super Bowl 55, said that most models predict that the pandemic will be over in August — just in time for the start of the NFL season. Yet he cautions that "escape variants" such as the strain of COVID-19 that originated in South Africa pose a legitimate threat that could ignite another wave later this year despite widespread vaccinations. Modifications of existing vaccines, with lower efficacy against variants, would take weeks to be widely distributed, Unnasch said.

"By July 4th, we’ll be able to party like it’s 2019,” he said. “After that, we’ll see.”

A data dispute

The NFL is optimistic, given the remarkable achievement of completing the entire 2020-21 season (sans the preseason) as the pandemic raged. The league proved to be nimble in responding to outbreaks, resulting in games played on Tuesday and Wednesday, in addition to other schedule adjustments.

The foundation for the league’s success came with strict protocols for the teams and the stadiums, while local health officials determined the capacity for fans. Although 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams went the entire season without playing before fans at home games, the league contends that the 1.2 million attendance for the season — culminating with 25,000 at Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl 55 — bolstered confidence in the protocols.

O’Reilly and other NFL officials also point to the 240,000 who attended the Super Bowl Experience over several days in Tampa setting the course for resuming the on-location draft and related activities in Cleveland.

O’Reilly maintained the NFL has “very clear data” that shows “our event did not cause any spread during the season and we have the same confidence here.”

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Not everyone is so bullish on the notion. Justin Kurland, a data research scientist at the University of Southern Mississippi, headed a group of researchers who conducted a case study of COVID-19 incidence following fans attending NFL games for the entire 2020-21 season. Kurland commended the NFL’s protocols at stadiums, which included pod seating, cashless transactions and designated gate entries (and for Buffalo Bills games, admittance only with a negative COVID-19 test result), while acknowledging some limitations of the case study, including the lack of contact tracing.

Yet the study, currently being peer reviewed, concluded that there were increased rates of COVID-19 cases in the counties where NFL games were played and in surrounding counties that drew fans to games. The case study based findings on 7-, 14- and 21-day moving averages.

"To suggest as brazenly as they have that they know … that’s ridiculous," Kurland told USA TODAY Sports, referring to the NFL’s contention that data supports their events have not contributed to spread.

Kurland said it is "very, very premature" for the NFL to plan at this point for packed stadiums in the fall.

"It’s disconcerting," said Kurland, part of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at Southern Miss. “It’s as if they’re not listening to the evidence assembled that says, ‘Hold on, slow down. Have you really done your due diligence?’ "

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for communications, public affairs and policy, told USA TODAY Sports that the league was unaware of the case study led by Kurland and relied on other sources. Kurland maintained that he informed Cathy Lanier, the NFL’s senior vice president of security, of the study. Lanier, Miller said, contended she had not heard from anyone connected with the study.

In any event, the draft sets up as another opportunity for the NFL to assess plans for the coming season — which of course will also be dependent on the patterns of the pandemic moving forward.

Unnasch said that after Super Bowl 55, the COVID-19 rates in the Tampa area rose slightly but could not be attributed directly to the game or the Super Bowl Experience.

"There was a tiny little bump after the Super Bowl,” he said. “I think that had more to do with Ybor City, where people were crowding at the bar, and with house parties where people gathered to watch the game.”

Vaccinated zone and living room pods

In reviewing the NFL’s plans for the draft, Unnasch identified the food and beverage area at the Draft Experience as the biggest concern. The Experience will be staged outdoors at the stadium across 2.5 million square feet, which the league said factored into the equation for the capacity as it will allow social distancing. The food court will be isolated within that footprint.

"If there’s an area where there’s a risk of spread,” he said, “it’s that area.”

Conversely, he complimented the plan to allow a few thousand fans to congregate near the stage in a “vaccinated zone.”

"The key to all of us getting our lives back is to get out there safely,” Unnasch said. “Giving rewards for getting vaccinated, I like that idea.”

Meanwhile, each of the prospects attending will have his own “living room” pod near the stage for family and friends to gather. As in the past, the draftees will engage in news conferences that will have protocols that include social distancing.

And while Goodell, in constant consultation with NFL medical adviser Allen Sills, won’t have any hard-core rule preventing him from a bro hug, it’s a good bet he will wear one of the stickers produced for the event, which reads: I’ve been vaccinated.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL draft 2021: Bro hugs may be back, but is push for normalcy safe?