The NFL enjoys an enviable position. Football season ended as COVID-19 cases began rising in the U.S. A few weeks later, NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. The basketball league suspended its season on March 11. National Hockey League and Major League Soccer quickly followed suit. Leagues with late spring or early summer finals face cancelled seasons.
Major League Baseball may field players in July. With its first game scheduled for September, the NFL has the advantage of time. The league can observe what happens with baseball, making adjustments as necessary. So what will pro football look like in 2020?
Normal Season or Fantasy Football?
As stay-at-home orders stretch from weeks to seemingly endless months, it’s hard not to feel like participants in a bizarre national experiment. We all have our favorite stress relievers. Exercise, religious services, meeting up with friends, even shopping or going to the beach. All are on the banned list, while most of us endure unprecedented levels of anxiety.
Watching football was once a happy diversion. Even infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is trying hard to be optimistic about the upcoming NFL season. His hope is that by the fall there will be enough tests available to monitor players. He’s less certain about how that will work.
Like its fans, the NFL has learned to operate remotely. New recruits and veteran players are using Zoom, Skype, and other video communication tools to chat with coaches. Team and league staff are telecommuting. The seven-round draft began on April 24 and featured league commissioner Roger Goodell, 32 NFL head coaches, and nearly 100 potential players–all broadcast remotely from their homes using some 600 camera feeds. Over three days and multiple networks, the draft averaged over eight million viewers –– beating the 2019 draft broadcast by 35%.
Unfortunately, no one has figured out a way for players to play virtually, and the clock is ticking. Training camps are set for July, when some predict MLB will resume. However, baseball players rarely get very close to each other on the field. There are also fewer players on baseball teams ––making social distancing in the dugout theoretically possible. Football requires more players, coaches, and support staff than other pro sports. It is also more dependent on TV revenue. This is a symbiotic need––in the age of cord-cutting, cable and satellite providers have few clear advantages over streamers other than live sports and news. In 2019, 41 of the top 50 most-watched TV broadcasts were NFL games.
Infection risk isn’t a new NFL concern. In 2015, the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network (part of Durham, N.C.-based Duke University School of Medicine) released an infection control manual for the 32 NFL teams. Among its recommendations are encouraging frequent hand washing, discouraging cosmetic body shaving–which creates a ready environment for infection–and promoting the use of flu vaccines. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicker Lawrence Tynes claimed the guidance was too little too late. He sued his team for unsanitary conditions in the team’s facility which he claimed led to a career-ending staph infection that also afflicted two teammates.
Although mass gatherings have been discouraged and even prohibited since March, the Centers for Disease Control’s own guidelines acknowledge the value of weighing event cancellations against “the potential economic impact to participants, attendees, staff, and the larger community.” With its outsized economic impact, many are hopeful football season goes as planned. The July training camp could offer an early trial. Players, coaches, support staff, and anyone involved might self-quarantine for two weeks prior. They could then remain isolated for the duration, housed in nearby hotels. Daily tests would determine if anyone has the virus. Of course, this perfect bubble is easily popped. One infected delivery person or hotel staffer could spread the disease. During the regular season, suggestions that a single city like Dallas could host all 32 teams and keep everyone isolated seems even more fantastic. So does the idea that young, wealthy athletes will remain socially distant for the duration.
Studies have already shown how easily infectious diseases spread among athletes. Plus, as Dr. Fauci pointed out when discussing football, a negative test one day doesn’t mean a player won’t be carrying the virus the next. Tom Garfinkel, the president of the Miami Dolphins, has released a plan to reduce capacity at team home Hard Rock Stadium by 75% to 15,000. Garfinkel believes this will allow fans space to socially distance.
Hand sanitizer and masks will also be provided. Unfortunately, recent data suggests that people in New York City who used masks and stayed home now make up the majority of hospitalizations. If the virus can spread in a shut-down city with multiple precautions, it seems even more likely in a stadium.
No matter what the NFL season looks like, one thing is certain. If there is a safe way to play, the games will have a huge TV audience –– perhaps record breaking. And if it doesn’t happen? Well, there’s always esports.
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.