The NFL Players Association expressed major reservations about the league opening training camps next week, particularly in COVID-19 hot spots like Miami, Houston, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. But the decision ultimately is in the hands of the league.
“The league is management,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said Friday on a video conference call with about 100 reporters. “They have the exclusive right, just like somebody who owns a plant, regarding when it opens and when it closes.
“They have a schedule they want to stick to. Right now, they’ve made the decision that they want training camps to open on time. Therefore, the role of the union is to hold them accountable about whether it’s safe to open now.”
Smith said the union started “raising alarms'' about the COVID-19 spikes in several NFL cities a couple of weeks ago.
NFL training camps are scheduled to open on July 28. But rookies and selected veterans can report early next week. The Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, who will kick off the regular-season on Sept. 10, have told their rookies to report for COVID-19 testing on Monday.
Houston has reported more COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks than almost any city in the country.
Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter, who is the NFLPA president, requested an “emergency'' conference call Thursday night with a number of league physicians, including those in COVID-19 hot spots, about the wisdom of opening training camps next week in some of these places. He got little satisfaction.
“Our position was, we have players who are very nervous about flying from a relatively safe location into a hot spot with their families,” said Tretter, who succeeded Eric Winston as the union’s president in March. “That’s a major concern. Houston, Miami, how safe is that given the spikes of the virus in those places?
“Football isn’t [playing] in a bubble like the NBA is. What goes on in our communities has an effect on how and if football can work this year. It will be a constant monitoring of what’s going on in our local communities. The health and safety aspect has to be taken care of for the players first and foremost.”
The answer he got from the league’s doctors basically was that it’s safe enough.
“With a couple of reservations, the doctors said that they felt it was safe to open training camps,‘' Smith said. “And they provided their medical reasons. That’s where we are.”
Two other major sticking points in discussions between the league and the union have been the frequency of testing and the number of preseason games. The union wants daily testing of its players, but the league has resisted. It thinks every other day, or once every three days, should be enough.
The union also wants all preseason games scrubbed. Last month, the league reduced the preseason from four to two games, but it isn’t willing to eliminate those as well.
“We believe daily testing is important, particularly given some of these hotspots,” Smith said. “It’s our belief that daily testing is going to be necessary, and we don’t plan on changing that position. The system isn’t perfect. But everything I’ve heard and read from Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and the CDC and the HHS and our own experts is that the ability to test daily and efficiently and effectively contact-trace is the best way'' to avoid an outbreak that would be catastrophic to the league and its players.
The union feels that without daily testing, the league is increasing the odds of a “doomsday'' scenerio, in which entire teams could end up needing to be quarantined.
“If one person tests positive and you’re not testing every day, you could put yourself in a situation where you would have to over-quarantine people,” Smith said. “One of the ways to decrease that possibility is to test every day. We believe the proper focus right now for our players and our business is not only coming up with a way to start the season, but to contemplate a way to finish the season.”
Smith said the league has the capability to get back test results “in three or four hours.” That’s a far cry from the situation for most Americans, who have had to wait as long as seven to 10 days for their COVID-19 test results.
“Every decision we make this year needs to be made through a medical lense of what’s the safest and healthiest way to move forward,” Tretter said. “The only way we’re going to make it through a full season is if that’s the criteria we’re using to make our decisions.”
Both the league and the players agreed on an acclimation period for players in training camp, because of the pandemic and the cancellation of all spring workouts and the limits the pandemic put on many players’ ability to work out. That’s one of the main reasons the players want the entire preseason scrubbed.
“Engaging in two games where people would be flying all over the country and then meeting together is only going to decrease the likelihood of starting and finishing the season on time,” Smith said. “This acclimation period was agreed upon by a joint task force. The protocols that ultimately were sent to the teams were a collaboration between the NFL and the NFLPA.
“Part of our frustration with the acclimation period and the two preseason games is their group of team doctors agreed to it with us.”