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Identifying issues the NFL must solve to get the 2020 season started

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The President’s meeting with pro sports commissioners on Saturday provided few answers — and has generated a lot of new questions.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Monday would have been that day that NFL teams with new head coaches (the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Washington Redskins) would have been able to open their offseason programs. The rest of the league — including the Kansas City Chiefs — would have started in another two weeks.

Instead, there are scenes like this one all over the league:

What is it going to take for the NFL to get the 2020 season back on the rails? At this point, there are still more questions than answers — and over the weekend, some new ones started circulating.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump conducted a conference call with the commissioners of all the major professional sports leagues — including the NFL’s Roger Goodell. Sources familiar with the conversation told ESPN that the President wants the NFL to re-start operations by August or September.

It is unlikely the commissioners needed much encouragement. Their leagues stand to lose untold hundreds of millions of dollars as long as they remain at a standstill. After the teleconference, the President remained hopeful, saying that he expected the leagues to be up and running “sooner rather than later.”

But since the country’s response to the pandemic has tended to be at the state level, that might be easier said than done. The NFL has franchises in 23 states across the country. Governors from all of them would have to be willing to allow the league to get back to business — and many of them don’t yet know how the pandemic will affect their states. At a news conference on Saturday, California governor Gavin Newsome — whose state hosts three teams — didn’t mince words when asked if he thought pro sports teams could be back in August or September.

“I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” he said.

Multiple health experts quoted in a Washington Post story over the weekend were unwilling to say if it was possible that pro sports could begin in the early fall.

“My crystal ball is not just cloudy,” Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, said this week. “It’s black.”

“Unfortunately, I think perhaps if anything, having large spectator sports open back up may even have to be delayed a little bit longer than relaxing some of the other things,” said Dean Winslow, an infectious-disease doctor at Stanford. “I hate to say that because I’m a big sports fan.

“There’s also the scenario a lot of people worry about, including my friend Dr. Fauci, that if you relax the control measures too soon, you could potentially induce a second wave of transmission to susceptible people,” Winslow added when asked about professional and college football starting on time. “It’s a little too soon to make that prediction. I certainly don’t think it’s impossible that we’ll be able to start resuming things such as sporting events by the early fall.”

Against this backdrop — that it’s at least possible the NFL could being playing sometime this fall — Peter King’s Football Morning in America column for this week said that if the start of the season is delayed, shorter schedules will be available.

It’s likely the NFL schedule-makers, led by Howard Katz, will spend their extra time this month working on 12-game and 14-game schedule alternatives. Roger Goodell sometimes sounds like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he says inside NFL offices: “Hope is not a strategy.” In this case, the league hopes it can play a full 16-game regular-season schedule with a bye week. But nothing is certain these days. In the wake of the league saying the schedule would be released on May 9 at the latest, it would be foolish to sit on the schedule that could be ready by next week and not take the next five weeks to prepare for alternatives. That’s why I’m sure they are working on shorter, compacted schedules.

In a thought-provoking analysis published by Sports Illustrated, their legal analyst Michael McCann noted there could be substantial issues between teams and their employees: the players.

Remember that leagues are private businesses. While the government can stop leagues from playing games, the government can’t force them to play. Also, many of the leagues operate through a management-union relationship with players. This means the leagues and their respective players’ associations (who notably weren’t invited to join the White House call) will need to negotiate a return to play within the parameters of federal labor law.

McCann said that the complex agreements between the leagues and their players won’t cover all the possibilities that have now appeared on the horizon.

Collective bargaining agreements will provide some clarity but won’t necessarily answer every question. For instance, testing of players for COVID-19 will require detailed procedures that haven’t yet been negotiated by management and labor. These procedures will also necessitate the advice of medical experts. The same can be said of measures needed to reduce the risk of players, coaches, staff and referees inadvertently infecting one another. Should fans attend games, that would only add another layer of complexity, both in terms of health and the law. Insurance companies that have sold policies to leagues and venues will want to weigh in, too. These aren’t straightforward issues. They’ll demand a balance of public health, personal health, privacy and legal considerations. And leagues’ commissioners aren’t the only relevant voices.

King warned that the possibility the NFL could play games without fans is very real.

Be prepared to see football games played without fans. No one knows the alternatives that will present themselves in the next six months. We don’t know if there will be any sporting seasons in 2020. But the NFL’s medical director, Dr. Allen Sills, pointed out to Judy Battista of NFL Media how far there is to go before we even think of playing games with any normalcy: “As long as we’re still in a place where when a single individual tests positive for the virus that you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with them in any shape, form or fashion, then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport. Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.”

But in McCann’s view, even games without fans could be problematic.

States and municipalities have the legal authority to determine public safety policies. They can adopt policies that are stricter than those compelled by the federal government. Take gathering restrictions. In some areas, gathering restrictions make it illegal to hold games, even if spectators weren’t present at those games. In Massachusetts, for example, public gatherings of more than 25 people are prohibited. If that prohibition were to continue into the summer and fall, it would be impossible to lawfully play an NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB game at Gillette Stadium, TD Garden or Fenway Park—regardless of whether fans are in attendance.

McCann also noted an issue that could reverberate for years to come: the pandemic’s effect on the salary cap. Since it is tied to league revenues — which are likely to be down this season even if the league begins as scheduled in early September — we could very easily see a reduction in the salary cap in 2021. That could very likely result in many more players being cap casualties as teams struggle to make do with less money. It could lead to an offseason unlike any we have ever seen.

For now, however, teams have little choice but to adjust to the new reality in the best way they can: preparing for a season that no one ever expected. Along with the rest of us, they hope that the pandemic will run its course quickly — and with as little loss of life (and economic disruption) as possible.

But like the commissioner said... hope is not a strategy.