In early May, we reported that there is an “extremely small” chance there will be no NFL football in 2020. Recent events, culminating this afternoon in a recommendation from the NFL Players Association that players stop practicing together, have sent us back to our sources for an updated assessment.
And there’s good news, even if the news regarding the prospects for football amid a pandemic has felt like anything but good. The NFL remains highly optimistic that the 2020 season will happen.
Less optimism exists that fans will be present for any of the games, however. The temptation to swing the doors open and allow risks to be assumed and reduce capacity where needed with staggered arrivals and departures quite possibly will yield to political and public-heath considerations that could make it more prudent to pass on playing with fans.
While the losses arising from a season without fans would be significant, they would not be staggering. The bulk of the NFL’s money comes from televising games, and this year the games as televised likely would generate higher ratings than ever before.
The optimism comes in large part from the league’s understanding as to how the virus is most commonly spread. Confined spaces, where droplets can hang in the air and invade eyes and noses pose far more problems than open spaces. That’s how the league navigates the potentially awkward juxtaposition of players keeping their distance inside a facility or a locker room and a dog pile of up to 22 bodies in the middle of a football field.
As one source suggested regarding the rash of positive tests among the Clemson football team, the exposure most likely happened in a weight room, where the air is thick and the athletes are breathing heavily as they exert themselves. The droplets have nowhere to go, and then end up going into the mucus membranes of other people. The NFL’s intended protocol will prevent congregations of players in the weight room, or in any other confined space.
The NFL believes its players will comply with rules aimed at keeping them from getting the virus, and that transmission on a practice field or during a game will be minimal. The league still recognizes that it will happen, but it believes that the situation can be managed both by quickly quarantining players who test positive and by having sufficient replacements ready to go.
The league also remains very confident, based on the research conducted to date, that players will not be susceptible to a bad outcome, if they catch the virus. The biggest concern will be players who have undergone chemotherapy, like Steelers running back James Conner. For other players — even those who are morbidly obese or have high blood pressure or are diabetic (whether they know it or not) — the league believes that the players will, for the most part, have little or no adverse consequences (if they even develop any symptoms) because of their age.
For coaches, it’s a different story. Older men who may have had cancer or who have diabetes or high blood pressure will be facing a more significant risk. Some won’t care, even if they should. Others may want to sit the year out, or work remotely (if possible) for 2020.
The league also remains confident that rapid-response saliva-based testing will be available before the season begins. Millions of dollars will be spent on testing, and the league is trying to come up with the most practical procedures for testing frequency. Some believe it must happen every day; the research may allow testing to occur less often than that.
Regardless, even if it currently feels like pro football may return until a vaccine is developed, the NFL continues to believe that the season will happen, even if no fans are present for games.
That’s an encouraging message, despite a stream of recent news items that could make many wonder whether the league will be able to pull it off. The league continues to believe that it will, even if no fans will be present to witness the games.