If and when NFL training camps open next week, as currently scheduled, teams’ rosters will include a maximum of 80 players, as opposed to the usual 90, in an effort to help enforce social distancing measures in team facilities. This is according to sources who were on an NFLPA players call Tuesday night discussing details of the league’s latest proposal on coronavirus protocols.
Sources also said the NFL and the union officially agreed Tuesday to the league’s plan to drop all preseason games for the 2020 season. The agreement came a day after the league offered to the union to play no preseason games this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thus, with Tuesday’s developments, the league and the players’ union are inching closer to an agreement on rules that will govern training camp and the season under these difficult circumstances. Weeks of negotiations seem to be coming to a head, as sources who were on the players’ call Tuesday night said there has been agreement on several issues but work remains to be done on others.
The NFL and the NFLPA announced Monday that they had agreed on COVID-19 testing protocols. Players and team personnel will be tested every day for the first two weeks of training camp, then every other day, as long as their team’s positive test rate is and remains under 5%. Additionally, sources said, the league and the union have agreed to the 80-player roster limit for training camp.
In a typical year, many teams have to add stalls to their usual locker rooms to accommodate 90-man camp rosters. But this year, with rules mandating 6 feet of space between lockers, teams have had to get creative in terms of locating new space for auxiliary locker rooms. Some teams are using rooms that otherwise would be vacant, such as media work rooms, and some teams are importing trailers and finding other means of adding space. The hope is that reducing rosters to 80 will help limit the extent to which teams have to create that extra space.
But while agreements have been reached on several issues, others remain unresolved. One of those is the proposed extended acclimation period for players in training camp. Players asked, based on the advice of jointly appointed medical experts, for a camp plan that would limit the first 21 days to strength and conditioning work only, followed by 10 days of non-padded practices and then a 14-day contact acclimation period in which padded practices would be permitted. The league’s latest offer, sources said, comes much closer to that than any of its previous offers had, though as of Tuesday night, the players still had not agreed to it, and they had expected to continue discussion.
The other major issue concerning players right now is the procedure under which they can opt out of the 2020 season if they are in a high-risk category or they’re simply not comfortable playing amid the pandemic. One source said the league has offered to give stipends ($250,000 for active roster and $100,000 for practice squad) to players who opt out because they’re in high-risk categories but nothing for players who opt out voluntarily. The source said the league’s proposal would be that players who opt out would have their contracts “toll” (meaning just slide back a year and pick up next year where they are now) but that the teams would in the meantime retain whatever rights they had to release or trade those players under their current contracts. The players are seeking better protections due to the unprecedented circumstances.
Hanging over all of this is the macro financial issue of the league’s long-term finances. With widespread expectation that the league will lose a significant amount of revenue this year due to empty stadiums and possibly canceled games, the league and the union have had preliminary talks about the effect that will have on the salary cap in future years. Agreement on that issue appears to be a ways off, as the sides are focused on getting to an agreement on the more immediate issues that would stand in the way of training camp and the regular season.
Training camp for most teams is scheduled to begin July 28. The Houston Texans and the Kansas City Chiefs, who are scheduled to play this year’s Thursday night opener, are scheduled to report on Saturday. It might not be necessary to have final agreements by then, since the testing protocol stipulates that any player who reports must test negative for COVID-19 twice, with 72 hours between tests, before being allowed in the facility. So Chiefs and Texans players reporting on Saturday, for example, would be tested, then go home and quarantine for two days, then go back to the facility and get tested again on July 28 — and if both tests came back negative, they could enter the team facility on July 29.