Starting and finishing an NFL season in the face of the novel coronavirus never was going to be easy, but we got a glimpse of just how monumental that task will be in a memo NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent to teams Monday outlining steps they must take before players can return to team facilities.
While the NFL isn’t going the bubble route of the NBA and confining all its players to a single location, the league — in what’s sure to be the first of several sets of protocols — offered very detailed instructions on how it plans to limit the spread of the virus to players and essential team personnel, and maybe pull off a season.
Among the decrees:Players, coaches, trainers and team personnel are to be separated into three tiers, with access to various parts of team facilities limited to only the most essential employees. This includes having a separate entrance for tiered personnel (or a dedicated time when an entrance can be used, if separate entrances aren’t possible).All players and club employees with access to restricted areas must undergo daily screening and testing prior to entering the facility. The five-part screening questionnaire includes asking players whether they’ve experienced vomiting or diarrhea in the previous 24 hours.Locker rooms must be reconfigured (to the extent possible) to allow players to maintain 6 feet of social distance at all times. Signs will be posted to discourage hand-shaking, furniture in common areas removed, and extensive cleaning protocols, including to equipment, will take place multiple times a day.Teams are to hold virtual meetings whenever possible, and teams are encouraged to move in-person meetings outdoors and have those attending wear masks. Meetings of 20 or more must be remote unless social distancing measures are in place.Workout groups are to be limited to 15 people or less, and players are encouraged to wear masks in the weight room. Similarly, trainers are to schedule appointments with players rather than have an open time for tasks such as taping ankles. And new protocols will be in place for things including eating (disposable utensils) and cleaning (where a two-week supply of some sanitizing materials is required).
While news about COVID-19 has fallen off the front page in some places, as states reopen and a new civil rights movement rages on, the coronavirus pandemic remains a serious threat to the NFL and sports in general as we’ve come to know them.
Goodell’s memo should help the NFL get to the starting line, but there’s still plenty to consider.
Will the preseason be delayed or shortened to give players, who’ve missed out on structured team workouts this spring, a longer acclimation period to better prevent injuries? If it is, what does that do to the start of the season?
What happens when a player or coach tests positive for COVID-19? Worse yet, what happens if the virus spreads through a locker room and leaves a team significantly short-handed for one or more weeks?
What testing protocols will the league put in place on game days? What if a player tests positive before kickoff but after arriving at the stadium (and spending time in the locker room or on a bus with teammates and coaches), or is later found to have interacted with someone else who did (a bus driver, hotel worker, fan or friend)?
What if the player who tests positive does so before a road game? How does he get home, and what happens to his teammates who traveled with him?
And what about fields? If there’s a small chance the virus lives on the indoor turf of a stadium, how can the league ensure its surfaces are safe to play on?
Some of that may seem far-fetched or a bit alarmist, but that’s what the NFL must plan for this fall, and that’s why the depth of Monday’s memo is both reassuring and a bit scary.
So far, no Lions players have expressed deep concern about returning to the field, with center Frank Ragnow saying last week, “I’m a 24-year-old kid. I don’t know any better.”
Plenty of players will take that approach, ready and willing to play so long as the league and their players association agree it’s safe.
The NFL is plowing ahead, preparing for a season this fall, as it should.
But Monday’s memo is a reminder that in the age of coronavirus, we still have a long way to go.