NFL and players’ union doctors and medical experts determined on Thursday that it is safe for the league’s 32 teams to open training camp on time in the upcoming weeks.
NFL Players’ Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said Friday in a conference call that “the doctors said [Thursday] night with a couple of reservations that they felt it was safe to open training camp.”
Smith said the union agreed with some but not all of the medical reasons cited for that decision, “but overall they gave the opinion that it was safe to open camp.”
The group of doctors on that call, the Daily News is told, included the team doctors for NFL clubs located in current coronavirus hotspots: the 49ers, Rams and Chargers in California; the Saints in New Orleans; the Texans in Houston; and Dolphins in Miami.
It also included NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills, and other experts on both sides of the negotiations.
Smith stressed that “the role of the union is to hold [the league and teams] accountable [on] whether it is safe to open training camp now.” And union leadership continued to prioritize players’ health and safety and question the wisdom of starting on time.
“How safe is it to start back up a football season at this moment with locations in this country where teams are located going through giant spikes in this virus?” NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, a center on the Cleveland Browns, said he asked the league and doctors.
But Smith said the union has had no players formally opt out of the 2020 season yet, though there have been discussions on the topic. So it appears the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs rookies are required to report on Monday, and the News was told on Friday about numerous other clubs planning to start the following Monday, July 27.
League MVP Patrick Mahomes, the Texans’ J.J. Watt and ex-Giant Odell Beckham Jr. are star players expressing concern about how this proceeds. Mahomes specifically responded Thursday on Twitter to the suggestion that Chiefs and Texans players could face discipline if they don’t report on time.
“Stuff is crazy man,” Mahomes tweeted. “All this time we had and now we are down to this….”
It will probably require opt-outs from players of that caliber and stature in order for the union to really draw a line in the sand, if it still wishes to. As Smith acknowledged, plenty of players want to play, they just want to do so safely. So they’re trying to make it happen.
The NFL released the following statement, as well: “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,” the statement continued. “All decisions will be made in an effort to put us in a 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.”
The Giants have provided no official word that they are starting that week. But they have proceeded all along as if camp were going to start on time, while respecting the league’s and unions’ negotiations toward a resolution on health and economic issues.
So the doctors’ most recent recommendation certainly points toward Giants players likely reporting on time, regardless of how quickly they begin actually practicing or if there is even a preseason schedule to play.
Those are two of the myriad unresolved issues the union and NFL are at odds over, as the owners appear to be proceeding with their collectively bargained right to require their players to report imminently.
The union consistently has said that a joint-task committee of NFL and NFLPA medical experts had recommended a long ramp-up period to safely return to actual football. So the players want no preseason games and limited physical contact.
Specifically, the committee’s recommendation included three days of onboarding, 21 days of strength and conditioning, then 10 days of non-contact practices, followed by a 14-day period of padded practices (including eight days of practice total in that span).
Playing two preseason games, of course, flies in the face of that recommended steady ramp-up. So Tretter stressed that everyone in football needs to stop thinking about how they should just “do this how we’ve always done it.”
Smith, in fact, implicitly roasted President Trump while fighting back against the conventional thinking that the NFL and its players should be able to just power through this coronavirus pandemic and be fine.
“Slogans & wishful thinking haven’t led our country through this pandemic,” Smith said, “and it will not lead football on any level through this pandemic.”
There are major unresolved economic hurdles regarding player contracts, opt-out scenarios and the spreading out of lost revenue, just to name a few.
The union on Wednesday told player agents that some estimates have shown the NFL will lose $4 billion in 2020 just by having few or no fans in the stands.
“Nothing will bring fans back to our stadiums faster than the simple decision across the country to wear a mask,” Smith interjected.
It also appears the NFLPA can protect player salaries in the event that games are cancelled due to the absence of a “force majeure” clause in the CBA or standard player contract that would protect owners in the event of an unforeseen crisis such as a pandemic — as the News reported in early July.
The owners are proposing various ways for players to help teams absorb their financial loss immediately, either through escrow or a plummeted salary cap in 2021. The union prefers to spread out the pain over a longer term.
Interestingly enough, however, as major as those financial disagreements seem, the sentiment the union projected on Friday was that if the NFL would accept no preseason games and a steady ramp-up in the name of safety, the union would compromise on the money.
Tretter, for example, stressed that the union believes the “economics can be taken care of” but “the priority is health and safety” of the players and their families, and they can’t find solutions to the money until they’re satisfied everyone will be safe.
The league and union have worked out a lot of coronavirus protocols and testing and facilities procedures. Still, the players are pushing for daily testing — not testing every other day — and the fragile nature of maintaining a controlled environment has many concerned.
On how players intend to respond if they are forced to report and do not approve of conditions, Smith said: “We’ve looked at all of our options.”
Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth told a story to illustrate how difficult it will be to conduct a safe training camp, for example, with football not putting its teams in a bubble.
Whitworth said he has a family member who attended a seemingly harmless lunch and then traveled with Whitworth’s family, and tested positive for coronavirus. Subsequently, Whitworth, his wife, and his four children also tested positive. And then so did his wife’s parents, whom they’d visited and traveled with, and his wife’s father was hospitalized.
Whitworth’s father-in-law thankfully was discharged from the hospital a few days ago, but his story highlighted how tough this situation will be to manage from both the players’ and clubs’ perspectives if and when football starts.
Smith granted that the league’s owners “have the exclusive right of when [the business] opens, closes, what the hours are, etc. The CBA dictates wages, hours, working conditions.”: And he said “generally and explicitly we’ve made provisions, being in a position to improve the IDERPs (Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plans) for the teams.”
Each NFL team can only bring 20 players at a time into its facility until the union approves its IDERP for handling training camp safely. Smith said the union finally received several teams’ IDERP’s on Thursday night from the league.
Tretter emphasized, though, that the NFL and NFLPA are setting themselves up for “failure” if they prioritize simply starting the season on time over their true main goal, which is to complete a full season.
Along with that, even if the players and league somehow get themselves to an on-time start to Week 1 of the regular season, there is the unusual reality that they will be playing in front of either few or no fans in these cavernous stadiums.
The union as a whole is wary of whether football can be played safely at all amid this coronavirus pandemic. But on top of that, there are plenty of players who are unsure how their game will be played without the normal fan energy that responds to and fuels their on-field fire.
So how can players play? How can fans get back to cheer? Smith reiterated:
“Wearing a mask probably will be the most significant component of whether sports return in this country. That’s not a political statement. That’s a common sense and scientific statement.”