Training camp amid the pandemic went better than even some of the most optimistic NFL observers would have predicted, with the league’s COVID-19 reserve list dwindling steadily from 66 players at the end of July to fewer than half a dozen as the week of the season openers arrived.
Doomsday scenarios envisioned when camps opened — players, free overnight from the rigorous prevention protocols of their practice facilities, going out and then bringing infection back to their teammates and coaches — didn’t happen.
So, in the league, which, according to the Wall Street Journal, has about $6 billion in TV revenue at stake, optimism abounds that the NFL can complete a 16-game schedule, plus playoffs, on schedule, if teams and players remain vigilant. That was the tone of a letter NFL Players Association president J.C. Tretter sent to his membership at the end of August.
“From August 12-20, there were a total of 58,397 COVID tests conducted on both players and staff members across the NFL. There were zero positive tests among players and just six among other personnel,” Tretter wrote. “That data is a testament to the protocols jointly developed and the effort made by every person who steps into each team’s facility to make good choices.”
But Tretter also cautioned: “It is not an exaggeration to say that one person’s actions can shut our whole league down. … We are so close to kicking off the season. The diligence and commitment we have shown in the past month must be matched from here on out if we are going to make it through a full season.”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said recently he wasn’t surprised that training camp went well, without virus outbreaks: “Players are very regimented. Coaches are very regimented. … We’re used to complying with rules.”
He said football also conditions players and coaches to adapt to sudden changes in their environment: “Every defense trains for an offensive turnover that, all of a sudden, you’re back on the field in one play, or a special teams turnover. You have to have that mindset. I think that mindset will go a long way to putting us in a good position with anything that’s thrown at us.”
Here’s the thing, though: The variables expand dramatically when the “pod” of people that constitutes a team expands dramatically — when players start blocking and tackling guys from other teams. When teams start traveling.
Two epidemiology experts contacted by The Inquirer — Dr. Michael Z. Levy of the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, and Dr. Nita Bharti of Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences — said they feel the NFL’s attempts to play right now are dangerously misguided.
“One of the issues we’re seeing in even mild or nearly asymptomatic infections with COVID-19 is long-term scar tissue on the lungs and myocarditis,” Bharti said. She said that for a professional athlete, these are not trivial concerns. “Any amount of scar tissue on their lungs and heart could be career-ending. I would argue that individual players’ health is really at stake here. For that reason alone, I would not advise this to begin.”
The NFL maintains that, so far, no players who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been diagnosed with myocarditis.
Levy, asked what he thought the risk level was for teams traveling and playing against one another, said: “High.”
“It ticks a lot of the boxes for high risk — it’s very close contact, a lot of people on the field, and it’s a lot of people on the team and the support staff. … The only box it doesn’t tick is [that the games aren’t played] inside. The only thing football has going for it is that it’s played outside,” Levy said.
The league has mandated extra precautions for travel this year — two chartered planes per team instead of one, no doubling-up on hotel rooms, players who travel aren’t allowed in the team facility the next day — but Levy said his concern is that the NFL is making assumptions based on what has happened so far, which might not hold true through the fall and into the winter.
“The rules that we’ve learned over the spring and summer … the importance of distance and how long it’s alive in the air, I’m not sure that those are going to be the same when the air gets drier and colder,” Levy said.
“We know that respiratory viruses are going to be worse in the winter, and that might have a lot to do with how humans are in the winter; we spend more time inside, but it also has something to do with the conditions. That’s why people were so optimistic that summer would stop it or slow it.”
When Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie spoke with reporters recently, Lurie said he was optimistic about the season, given the extensive coronavirus protocols in place. Lurie envisioned drastic effects on teams, but he seemed to place those concerns within the framework of the game, something to be addressed with depth and roster flexibility (16-member practice squads, including two players who can be activated for games each week). He didn’t talk about the possibility that players or coaches could become desperately ill or die.
“We will do the very, very best we can as a league and as a team to try to keep everybody as safe as possible. It’s inevitable there’s going to be ups and downs here, but I think we have a significant roster size, we have positional flexibility,” Lurie said. “We know going in that there’s going to be some unusual games, where players might be playing positions they’ve hardly ever played. But that’s part of being a professional athlete. We embrace it. …
"We know that in any given game, there might be one quarterback available, or maybe there will be no tight ends, and a wide receiver will have to play tight end, or our defensive end is going to be a defensive tackle, or a cornerback is going to have to be a receiver. Our long snapper may not be there.
“I think the contingencies, the teams that embrace it will have some advantage.”
Lurie also was optimistic that there will be “significant” numbers of fans in the Lincoln Financial Field stands before too long, even though the city has so far rejected the team’s attempts to get the OK for limited, distanced seating, and there will be no fans for the Sept. 20 home opener against the Los Angeles Rams.
As of Labor Day weekend, only four teams had said they definitely will have fans for their openers, and two teams hadn’t announced anything either way. Here, Levy and Bharti were emphatic in their opposition.
“I don’t really see a way that can go forward safely,” Bharti said. “The issue of fans in the stands is something that should be off the table.”
Bharti noted that the NHL, the NBA and the MLB are playing right now, all without fans. The NHL and NBA are in 24-hour bubbles, but baseball is not, and still, there are no fans allowed, anywhere.
“The MLB does not hate money,” she said. “We just don’t have a good way to do that safely right now.”
Levy said to comprehend the dangers of bringing thousands of fans into stadiums, you only have to look at what happened when some colleges and universities tried recently to move students back onto campus and teach in-person.
“Some universities thought they could open, basically, with precautions, and it was wrong,” Levy said. “And the universities being wrong was tremendously dangerous to [those schools’] cities. If a city is thinking about allowing fans into a stadium, and they’re thinking about six feet [as a safe distance for seating], they’re not thinking enough about the effect of fans on the city after the fans go home.”
The NFL and the Players Association are backed by medical experts who take a much less cautious view.
Dr. Larry Caplin has advised players on COVID-19 issues and has been part of the union’s phone calls on planning how to function during the pandemic. Caplin told CBS Sports that players “like the seriousness that the teams and the NFL have applied to this problem. There’s significant optimism among all of them. … If the players and the teams are compliant, they’ll play. If they choose not to be compliant, then they run the risk of impacting the entire team. No one wants to be that guy.”
Dr. Allen Sills is the NFL’s chief medical officer. He’s an orthopedic surgeon and a neurosurgeon, not an infectious disease expert. Last month, Sills cast the league’s determination to play not in the context of wanting to secure the $6 billion in broadcast revenue, but as an attempt to lead the nation back to some desperately needed sort of normalcy.
“People often say, ‘Well why are you even doing this? Why pursue and move this forward?’ I think we have to have a way to learn how to coexist with this virus,” Sills said. “The virus is not going away anytime soon. This isn’t just an NFL issue or a pro sports issue — this is for our schools, our businesses, our places of worship, every aspect of our lives.
“Are we gonna be able to find ways to mitigate risk and still have some sense of our normal lives while we live with that virus? That’s the challenge we all have, and that’s the challenge we’re embracing here in the NFL.”
Levy, the UPenn expert, said living normal lives without a vaccine for the virus is possible in countries that were proactive, countries that went further than the U.S. did in shutting down in the spring.
He said the current attitude seems to be that the country can keep the virus rumbling along at a “low level,” which isn’t really that low, in comparison to the rest of the world.
“I do think that’s very optimistic,” Levy said.