The NFL is planning to play its full 2020-21 season, beginning with the season opener between the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans on Sept. 10.
So it surprised many people earlier this week when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN that “football may not happen this year” unless players are essentially in a bubble to protect both team members and the communities they live and play in.
While no official statements have been made about the presence of fans at games, Fox’s NFL insider Jay Glazer said the league has given “every indication” it plans on playing the entire season in front of fans — even though the country is still dealing with the initial wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and it has long been feared that a second wave will emerge in the autumn.
The NFL began allowing some coaches and staff to return to team facilities this month with certain safety precautions in place. The league previously ordered a shutdown of all facilities due to the coronavirus.
With the start of NFL training camps less than a month away, here are the burning questions about the NFL’s return:
Will the NFL implement a bubble as the NBA did? The NBA’s “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney’s
resort complex in central Florida will include 22 teams with eight games to conclude the regular season suspended on March 11 and then playoffs — and some oddly specific rules for how players should behave within the bubble.
But unlike the NBA, the NFL has to play a full season’s worth of games, and Dr. Allen Sills, chief medical officer of the NFL, has stated that the league will not construct a bubble.
“We do not feel it’s practical or appropriate to construct a bubble,” Sills told Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network. “Anyone who tests positive will be isolated until medically appropriate to return.”
Sills’s comments came shortly after Fauci said the following on CNN: “Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall. If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”
President Trump tweeted that Fauci “has nothing to do with NFL Football.”
Could Fauci or the federal government stop the NFL from playing? Even though Fauci’s recent comments show he would prefer the NFL construct a bubble system like the NBA, it is not a mandate.
Neither Fauci nor the president, or the federal government, has the ability to force the NFL to construct a bubble or to cancel or suspend its season.
A representative of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told MarketWatch that the CDC and the government will not be involved in the NFL’s 2020 season in any way; only local governments hold authority to do so. “CDC would not be involved in this. It could be an issue that the state and local public health departments work with the government in their respective locations to decide, but it would not involve us.”
How will the league protect players off the field? The NFL has taken steps this offseason to limit in-person events to slow virus transmission among players, coaching staffs and other personnel.
The 2020 NFL draft in April was conducted digitally for the first time in league history, in-person minicamps were canceled in favor of online variants, and staff at team facilities were cut to essential personnel only.
According to the NFL Network, the league will rely on a “robust” contact-tracing system. While most details of that system are still unknown, Sills, the league’s lead medical officer, said, “anyone who tests positive will be isolated until medically appropriate to return.”
Multiple NFL players have already tested positive for COVID-19, including, this week, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
How will the league protect players on the field? One interesting aspect of the NFL’s resuming play will be the equipment used by players. Because football features close personal contact on every play, the equipment used this season could be highly scrutinized.
One piece of equipment that could be altered in some way this season is the helmet.
Thom Mayer, the NFL Players Association medical director, said the league is looking into new face masks.
“Yes, it’s a possibility,” Mayer told ESPN. “Back in early March, I suggested ways to handle the helmets and the facemasks. … [T]he league’s bioengineers are testing prototypes with Oakley. They’re looking at every issue, including when masks fog up.”
Oakley, an NFL sponsor and a unit of the Italian conglomerate Luxottica Group SpA, whose parent is EssilorLuxottica
has carried out design work in the past on glasses that don’t fog up for the U.S. military, according to Mayer.
The sports media network Stadium created a conceptual image of what an NFL helmet might look like this season:
What if NFL cities and their states have adopted different standards for protecting public health? The federal government and the CDC will not be able to control the actions of the NFL. But what about local and state governments?
Because the NFL is not implementing a bubble system in a single locale, but electing to have teams travel to the various stadiums throughout the U.S., the league may run into situations in which different states have different rules surrounding the pandemic.
For example, California, home to four NFL teams, has a mandatory mask order, while Texas, home to two NFL teams, does not. States have individually set standards on how many people can attend large gatherings, as do some cities.
Dr. Glenn Copeland, medical adviser for several sports franchises and to QuestCap, a company working with sports leagues to bring sports back, said the NFL needs to “create its own rules.”
Copeland told MarketWatch that a singular list of rules for all teams in the league to abide by is the only way to maintain consistency.
Whether it’s daily testing, mask wearing at all times at a team facility or new mandatory equipment, rules must, Copeland said, be uniform and strict. “Protocols are going to have to be stringent.”
It’s undetermined at this stage whether some states will block the playing of NFL games, even if the league has does come up with rules for all teams. The U.S. Open had to get approval from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to conduct the tennis tournament, without fans, starting in late August.
Asked for comment, Brian McCarthy, vice president of communications for the NFL, told MarketWatch that the league is “prepared to make adjustments as necessary.”
“There’s three months from tonight until the first NFL game, so we know many things will change between now and then. It’s hard to predict today what things will look like then. Look at where we were three months ago and where we are today.”