The ongoing pandemic has created plenty of confusion, as science has mixed with politics and as news has been filtered and slanted by media outlets and personalities more concerned about pandering to political viewpoints (on both sides) than the truth. Within the NFL, there’s little or no confusion: Football season will happen.
Per sources with direct knowledge of both the NFL’s deliberations and the current and expected medical and scientific developments in the coming weeks and months, there is an “extremely small” chance that there will be no NFL season in 2020.
So what would trigger the “extremely small” outcome? As one source put it, the information gleaned from fighting and studying the coronavirus to date would have to be proven dramatically incorrect by future behavior of the virus and the illness it causes in the people who are infected by it.
The biggest potential impediment to playing football will be the availability of adequate and efficient testing, both for football personnel and the general public. By August, however, it’s expected that testing will be prevalent, that the testing process (saliva or finger prick) will be simple, and that the results will be turned around very quickly.
It’s also expected that there will be enough testing for the general public to justify testing all players, coaches, trainers, etc. before they enter a team facility or a stadium for practice, meetings, treatment, or games. Pre-admission testing on a daily basis will be critical to keeping the virus out of locker rooms, and to avoiding a Bio-Dome approach to playing a season’s worth of games.
As to the stadiums, it’s also believed that they will be open to fans, with a strong preference for open stadiums from Week One. (For competitive reasons, a season that begins with no fans and that eventually includes fans would create unfair advantages and disadvantages, based on for example when teams are scheduled to play in Seattle or New Orleans or Minnesota or wherever crowd noise can impact the performance of a visiting offense.) Again, testing for the virus and antibody testing (which will reveal whether a person already has had the virus) will be much more readily available by the time football season rolls around, making it easier for fans who choose to attend games to know whether they have it or whether they’ve had it.
Obviously, the virus won’t simply be going away. People over 60 and/or those with certain comorbidities (specifically, diabetes) will need to protect themselves by, among other things, not attending sporting events. Look for teams to explain this to season-ticket holders in careful detail, and for teams to allow season-ticket holders to suspend their arrangements for 2020 with no impact on the ability to buy tickets in 2021 or beyond.
The official position of the league and the teams surely will be that anyone who chooses to attend a game will be doing so with full knowledge and awareness of the risks, and the lawyers undoubtedly will ensure that anyone buying a ticket expressly assumes the risk of catching the virus by choosing to show up for the game.
Don’t count on a “checkerboard” seating arrangement, either. Social distancing in football stadiums won’t work. Even if fans are kept physically distant in their seats, it will be impossible to keep them at least six feet apart when entering, exiting, going to the bathroom, getting food and drink, etc. The league currently is confident that, by the time football season rolls around, the situation will have progressed to a point that people will be able to make informed decisions about whether they want to attend games. (Obviously, those with the antibody will have the lowest risk, since they will have already had the virus.)
This doesn’t mean that training camps will open in late July/early August or that the regular season will start on Thursday, September 10, with the Chiefs raising a banner and hosting a team like the Patriots. In order to get to the point where the governors of all states with NFL stadiums will agree to opening the doors and letting anyone who chooses to attend show up, the start of the season may have to be delayed by a few weeks.
That’s why there’s already talk of a February 28 Super Bowl in Tampa. A three-week delay in the Super Bowl would accommodate a three-week delay to the start of the season. Or a four-week delay if bye weeks are eliminated. Or a five-week delay if the Super Bowl is played one week after the conference championship games.
However the specific dates play out, the generalities currently are this: An NFL season is highly likely to occur, and it’s possible if not probable that all 256 games will feature stadiums that will be open to fans who choose to attend.
While that currently may not feel feasible based on the events of the past six weeks, real progress in testing is happening away from public view, and four months become essentially an eternity when it comes to the progress that will continue to be made as to ease of and access to testing.
So there’s your coronavirus good news for the weekend, harvested and presented objectively and without bias or agenda. Here’s hoping that, as we move forward, people will try their best to remain objective and unbiased and unmotivated by the potential financial benefits of telling a subset of the population what it wants to hear, instead of what it needs to know.