The NFL remains determined to start training camps on time, which in some cases means next week.
NFL players, following a Thursday night conference call with several team physicians, are aware that a delay in the start of camps is unlikely. The key now, NFLPA leaders say, is to figure out the best way to practice and play football safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a wide-ranging, 90-minute conference call Friday afternoon with members of the Pro Football Writers of America, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA president JC Tretter and executive council member Andrew Whitworth addressed many of the issues confronting players as they return to work. These include the players’ positions on testing frequency, preseason games, and the short-term and long-term economic impact the coronavirus will have on the league, among other issues.
The common thread that ran throughout the call was this: Attitudes toward the virus are going to have to change if the NFL season is going to start on time and be played to its completion.
“We’ve had coaches say the [health and safety] protocols are too much to ask. Coaches come forward saying, ‘Everyone’s going to get sick, so we might as well all get sick together,'” said Tretter, the Cleveland Browns‘ center who took over as union president in March. “Those attitudes can’t happen. There are consequences to getting sick.”
NFL players — perhaps most prominently Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt in a Twitter post Thursday — have expressed a desire and willingness to get back to work. But they recognize that they will be incurring some level of risk by doing so.
“I’m a center,” Tretter said in reference to a question about the sport requiring players to operate in proximity to one another and breathe in one another’s faces. “At this time more than any, I have a very dangerous job. This is going to be a battle of risk mitigation and providing opportunities for guys to make safe decisions.”
For the past several months, the NFLPA has been holding several open conference calls per week in an attempt to educate members about the virus and its potential impact on the NFL season. The latest was scheduled for 5 p.m. ET Friday. The union also has been negotiating reopening protocols with NFL team owners over the past several weeks. The two sides have yet to agree to the terms of the reopening procedures, but one source close to the negotiations told ESPN on Friday morning that the pace and intensity of the negotiations have picked up, and the sides are exchanging proposals every two-to-three hours.
Players still have many questions about how they will be able to keep themselves and their families safe from the virus in a football environment, and many of those questions are impossible to answer without more data and experience. On Thursday, the NFLPA asked for a conference call with team physicians from teams in current “hotspot” markets, such as Miami, Arizona, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, where COVID-19 cases have been spiking lately. The takeaway from that call, Smith said, is that the league plans to start camps on time and expects players to show up.
“The doctors last night said, with a couple of reservations, that it was safe to open training camp,” Smith said. “They provided their medical reasons. The league has made the decision that they want to start training camp on time. The role of the union is to hold them accountable on how to make sure it’s safe.”
To that end, the NFLPA has requested that the league provide daily COVID-19 testing for players, while the league has offered to test every other day. Smith said frequent testing and contact tracing will be vital factors in handling and limiting, among other things, outbreaks that could prevent teams from taking the field in a given week. “Anybody can start a season,” Smith said. “We believe daily testing is part of how to maximize our chances of finishing the season.”
The NFLPA has also requested that the league eliminate all preseason games this year. So far, the league has decided to shrink the preseason from four games per team to two. But as of Friday afternoon, it had not acceded to the union’s demand to eliminate the preseason altogether. One source told ESPN that there has been some discussion about dropping to one preseason game, but no decision has been reached. Smith said the players don’t believe it makes sense to expose them in a game environment when the game doesn’t count in the standings.
“To engage in two games where players would be flying all over the country and then engaging with each other to work, and to do that prior to the season, doesn’t increase the likelihood of starting and finishing the season on time,” Smith said.
The players also have asked for an extended “ramp-up” period once they report to training camp. Tretter said the players’ plan comes directly from the medical experts with whom they’ve consulted and would involve three phases: 21 days of strength and conditioning work to get players into shape after a spring and summer of inactivity, 10 days of non-padded practices and 14 days of “contact acclimation,” in which pads could go on and practices could proceed as close to normal as possible.
Tretter said it is unfair to compare this offseason to the one that followed the 2011 lockout, when minicamps and OTA practices fell by the wayside, as they did this year. “Coming out of the lockout, you could go to any private gym and get in shape,” Tretter said. “You can’t do that this year.”
Tretter said he believes the result is that many players will show up in relatively poor shape, which will increase the likelihood of injury. The union also wants to establish specific guidelines for players who decide to opt out of the season, either for medical reasons or because they aren’t comfortable with the level of risk. Those guidelines, as well as a potential COVID-specific injured reserve list that would allow for short-term (three weeks or so) absences related to the virus, are being negotiated.
“We don’t want players unfairly punished because of testing positive,” Smith said.
It remains to be seen whether the league will grant any or all of these requests.
Owners had a videoconference Friday, and when it ended, the league put out this fairly generic statement: “NFL clubs met today via videoconference and received an update on preparations for the 2020 season. We will continue to implement the health and safety protocols developed jointly with the NFLPA, and based on the advice of leading medical experts, including review by the CDC. We will address additional issues in a cooperative way. All decisions will be made in an effort to put us in position to play a full regular season and postseason culminating with the Super Bowl which is the shared goal of the clubs and the players.”
There was nothing in the statement about pushing back the start of training camps or the regular season. Rookies for the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, the teams scheduled to play the Thursday night regular-season opener Sept. 10, have been told to report Monday. The full-squad reporting date for the vast majority of teams is July 28.
Smith was asked what recourse players would have if they weren’t able to secure the NFL’s agreement on their outstanding requests and declined to answer, saying only, “We’ve explored all options.”
According to sources familiar with the union’s discussions and the CBA, the players believe that they would have to report to work in such a scenario, and the union would likely file a grievance claiming that the league failed to provide them with a safe work environment. Whether the union would have a chance to win such a grievance is difficult to say and depends on many factors, sources said.
Smith and Tretter said that some teams on Thursday had begun sharing with the players their IDER (Infectious Disease Emergency Response) plans, and the union was reviewing those to make sure they were in compliance with the COVID-related health and safety protocols as they understand them. It is the union’s position that teams aren’t allowed to open their camps unless and until they have given their players a copy of their IDER plans.
Tretter said the health and safety discussions with the league remain the highest priority, but the league and union also have discussed the financial impact of the pandemic. Smith said there are projections that estimate that the 2021 salary cap could drop by as much as $70 million per team because of 2020 revenue lost as a result of games being canceled or played in empty or partially empty stadiums.
This year’s salary cap is $198.2 million. A drop to $128.2 million would cost quite a few players jobs as teams scramble to renegotiate contracts and release players to get under the cap. The union, Smith said, favors a proposal that would spread the hit over future years and avoid a precipitous one-year drop. Smith pointed out that player health benefits are part of the annual calculated player cost per team and could be adversely affected by a major drop in the cap.
But regardless of how any of these issues gets resolved, the union officials on Friday’s call stressed the importance of adjusting attitudes around the pandemic. Tretter spoke of the importance of players making smart decisions inside and outside team facilities to help avoid contracting and spreading the virus — limiting social contact, wearing masks, etc.
Whitworth joined the call to relate a story of how a member of his family went out to lunch with a friend, and shortly thereafter, he, his wife, their children and his wife’s parents all became infected. Whitworth said his father-in-law was hospitalized for a time, though all of them have since recovered.
“Players are going to have to be careful outside the building,” Whitworth said. “All it takes is one exposure, and it can spread like wildfire.”
Tretter stressed the importance of everyone in the league — players, coaches, team executives — understanding that there will be no way to have a fully “normal” season in the current environment. Everything will have to be different, from locker room layouts to practice schedules to eating in the cafeteria.
Sources familiar with the player calls in recent weeks say teams have looked into larger planes for traveling between cities, giving each player his own hotel room on the road and other changes.
“We’re in a different world now,” Tretter said. “So the idea that this is going to go away with the snap of a finger and you don’t have to change, that’s not going to fly. Everything needs to be revamped and refitted to fit coronavirus. We can’t refit coronavirus around football.”
Smith made a couple of references to the way the virus has spread in the United States more than it has in other countries. He seemed to indicate a feeling that the NFL would be wise to handle things differently than the country as a whole.
“Slogans and wishful thinking haven’t led our country through this pandemic,” Smith said, “and they won’t lead football on any level through this pandemic.”
Smith finished with a plea to the public to heed the advice of scientists and doctors who are advising people to wear face coverings in public to limit the spread of the virus.
“Wearing a mask will probably be the most significant component of whether sports return in this country,” Smith said. “That’s not a political statement. That’s a common-sense and scientific statement. Nothing will bring fans back to our stadiums faster than the simple decision across the country to wear a mask.”