The NFL is planning to play its full 2020-21 season, beginning with the season opener between the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans on Sept. 10.
So it surprised many people earlier this week when Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN that “football may not happen this year” unless players are essentially in a bubble to protect both players and the communities they live and play in.
While no official statements have been made about the presence of fans at games, Fox’s NFL Insider Jay Glazer says the league has given ‘every indication’ it plans on playing the entire 2020 season with fans — even though the country is still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
The NFL began allowing some coaches and staff to return to team facilities this month with certain safety precautions in place. The league previously ordered a shutdown of all facilities due to the coronavirus.
With the start of NFL training camps less than a month away, here are the burning questions about the NFL’s return:
Will the NFL implement a bubble like the NBA?
The NBA’s “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Disney
will include 22 teams for eight regular season games and then playoffs — and some oddly specific rules for how players should behave within the bubble.
But unlike the NBA, the NFL has to play a full season worth of games, and Dr. Allen Sills, chief medical officer of the NFL, has stated the league will not construct a bubble.
“We do not feel it’s practical or appropriate to construct a bubble,” Sills told Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network. “Anyone who tests positive will be isolated until medically appropriate to return.”
Sills’s comments came shortly after Dr. Anthony Fauci said the following on CNN:
“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. 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.”
Can Dr. Fauci or the federal government stop the NFL from playing?
Even though Fauci’s recent comments show he would prefer the NFL construct a bubble system like the NBA, it is not a mandate.
Neither Dr. Fauci nor the federal government has the ability to force the NFL to construct a bubble or force the NFL to cancel or suspend its season.
A CDC representative told MarketWatch that the CDC and federal government will not be involved in the NFL’s 2020 season in any way; only local governments have such authority.
“CDC would not be involved in this. It could be an issue that the state and local public health departments work with the government in their respective locations to decide, but it would not involve us.”
How will the league protect players off the field?
The NFL has taken steps this offseason to limit in-person events to slow virus transmission among players and members of the league.
The 2020 NFL draft in April was done digitally for the first time in league history, in-person minicamps were cancelled in favor of online substitutes, and staff at team facilities were cut to essential personnel only.
According to the NFL Network, the league will rely on a “robust” contact tracing system. While most details of that system are still unknown, Dr. Sills said, “anyone who tests positive will be isolated until medically appropriate to return.”
Multiple NFL players have already tested positive for COVID-19, including star running back for the Dallas Cowboys Ezekiel Elliott.
How will the league protect players on the field?
One interesting aspect about the NFL resuming play will be the equipment used by players. Because football is a game that features close contact, equipment used this season could be highly scrutinized.
One piece of equipment that could be altered in some way this season is the helmet.
Thom Mayer, the NFL Players Association medical director, says the league is looking into new face masks for the upcoming season.
“Yes, it’s a possibility,” Mayer told ESPN. “Back in early March, I suggested ways to handle the helmets and the facemasks…the league’s bioengineers are testing prototypes with Oakley. They’re looking at every issue, including when masks fog up.”
Oakley, an NFL sponsor, has done design work in the past on glasses that don’t fog up for the U.S. military, according to Mayer.
Stadium did a concept image of what a COVID-19 helmet might look like for the upcoming season.
What if different states have different rules about the pandemic?
As outlined above, the federal government and the CDC will not be able to control the actions of the NFL. But what about local and state governments?
Because the NFL is not implementing a bubble system in a single locale, but electing to travel to various stadiums throughout the U.S., the league may run into problems if different states have different rules surrounding the pandemic.
For example, California, which is home to four NFL teams, has a mandatory mask order, while Texas, home to two NFL teams, does not. States also have different standards on how many people can attend large gatherings.
Dr. Glenn Copeland, medical advisor for several sports franchises and advisor to QuestCap, a company working with sports leagues to bring sports back, says the NFL needs to “create its own rules.”
Copeland told MarketWatch that a singular list of rules for all teams in the league to abide by is the only way to maintain consistency.
Whether it’s daily testing, mask wearing at all times at the facility, or new mandatory equipment, Copeland says the rules must be uniform and harsh.
“Protocols are going to have to be stringent.”
It’s still undetermined if some states will have a problem with NFL games being played, even if it does come up with rules for all teams. The U.S. Open had to get approval from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to play the tennis tournament without fans starting in late August.
When asked for comment, Brian McCarthy, Vice President of Communications for the NFL, told MarketWatch that the league is “prepared to make adjustments as necessary.”
“There’s three months from tonight until the first NFL game so we know many things will change between now and then. It’s hard to predict today what things will look like then. Look at where we were three months ago and where we are today.”