With their virtual offseason in the rear-view mirror, the next item on the New England Patriots’ agenda is training camp: the team’s players are scheduled to report to Gillette Stadium on July 28, even though the date has yet to be confirmed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association. The Coronavirus pandemic still dictates life in pro football and the United States as a whole, after all, and will have an impact on the league’s decision making and general practice and in-season procedures.
How those procedures will look like — whether it is fans not being in the stands, the preseason getting shortened, or other adaptations being made — remains to be seen. One prominent expert recently voiced his skepticism about the NFL successfully maneuvering through the current situation and conduct business as close to usual as is possible: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is currently leading the White House Coronavirus Task Force as one of the country’s leading immunologists.
Dr. Fauci recently spoke with CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the upcoming season, and he didn’t sound all too confident.
“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,” Dr. Fauci told Dr. Gupta. “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.”
While the NFL has presented plans to safely return player to team facilities following the offseason, and is planning to test them up to three times a week, according to NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer, no isolation scenario has yet been presented. Such a plan would be difficult to execute, but not unprecedented: the NBA approved a plan earlier this month to finish its currently suspended season with 22 teams being isolated together in Florida.
Given the size of rosters and the logistics involved, such a plan seems unlikely to also be implemented in the NFL. Instead, the league will try to run its normal schedule and try to minimize infection risk. As Dr. Gupta pointed out in a recent Tweet, football “will likely look very different” if it does come back this fall: from modified face masks embedded in players’ helmets, to physical distancing players having to wear medical masks on the sideline.
Still, the nature of the game might still be too physical even with guidelines and regular testing in place as Dr. Fauci pointed out last month.
“If people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that’s the perfect setup for spreading,” he said in an interview NBC Sports. “I would think that if there is an infected football player on the field — a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is it — as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person.”
At least half-dozen NFL players have been tested positive with Covid-19 so far, including Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. “Several players” with the Cowboys and Houston Texans have reportedly also contracted the virus. The New England Patriots, meanwhile, have not had any positive cases on either their roster or coaching staff reported up until this point.
As for the NFL as a whole, its own chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, issued a statement responding to Dr. Fauci.
“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches and other essential personnel,” the statement reads. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem.
“This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues,” it continues. “Make no mistake, this is no easy task. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”
If push comes to shove, however, the league will has built a Plan B into its 2020 schedule.
The NFL’s schedule makers have planned for the possibility of Covid-19 impacting the season and could potentially move the Super Bowl back by several weeks in order to allow the regular season to take place in as normal a fashion as is possible under the current set of circumstances. The idea is that the league would gain flexibility in case a start on September 10 is not possible for one reason or another. If that were the case, games could potentially be rescheduled or even canceled while most of the regular season as well as the playoffs could still take place in their usual format.