All this week, USA TODAY Sports will examine the possibility of a fall without football, and what that would mean in a country where the sport is king.
For the prospect of football being played this fall, Monday is noteworthy.
Rookies are expected to report for training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, the teams set to play each other Sept. 10 in the NFL’s scheduled season opener.
NFL rookies for the league’s other 30 teams are expected to report Tuesday. Veterans are set to arrive at training camps July 28 as the league moves forward with its plan to play the 2020 season during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve never wavered from that,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told USA TODAY Sports. “It would be news if we said we aren’t playing the season. But we’ve never come close to saying that.”
Yet as COVID-19 cases spike to unprecedented levels in the United States, the possibility of fall without football is more than a notion.
The Ivy League has canceled football and all other fall sports, and the Patriot League, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Colonial Athletic Association followed suit.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they have canceled non-conference games, and there’s reason to wonder if college football players might never take the field this season.
Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, last week referred to a document he said lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable can be achieved.
“Today, sadly,” he added, “the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”
Then there are the high schools ranks, with Virginia and New Mexico having canceled football for this fall and 12 other states have delayed the season, said Bruce Howard, director of communications for the National Federation of State High School Associations. But several states remain undecided about the fall, with many decisions coming in the next few weeks.
Yet the NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) continue to get closer to finalizing a deal to play the 2020 season that would culminate with Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 in Tampa Bay.
Ravina Kuller, an infectious disease expert, warns the plan could result in tragedy — the death of an NFL player.
“I’m a huge football lover,” Kuller said. “Steelers fan. I bleed yellow and black. And it pains me to see that football might not happen until next year. But those players’ health is at stake here.
“You might need to see these football players go to the ICU or end up dying for them to step back and cancel games.”
So how is it that the NFL continues to move forward with optimism, and what does it say about the prospect for football in the fall?
Money remains a powerful motivator for a league that generates about $15 billion a year.
Amesh Adalja, a member of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel, said the lucrative NFL contracts will be able to incentivize players to adhere to safety protocols such as social distancing.
“You can’t do that for a college athlete because they’re students first,” said Adalja, an infectious disease scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Sometimes people forget that. Those bubbles are very difficult to enforce in a college environment because you will find people are in college to meet people and do things and not just to play football. And I think that makes it much more challenging to do that in a college level.”
Since college football players began reporting in June for voluntary workouts, dozens of them have tested positive for COVID-19. However, there are no reports of any being hospitalized.
High school players across the country have participated in workouts at the same time, and there has been one report of a player being hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19.
“I do think it is true that the younger, healthy folks, even if they get infected, they don’t seem to end up needing hospitalization as much,” said Ann Marie Pettis, President-Elect of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “During the football season, if they do have family members or grandparents at risk, perhaps they quarantine themselves from those family numbers.
“So I think that’s another possible way to go if they do make the decisions to move forward.’’
Dr. Charlotte Baker, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population of Health Sciences at Virginia Tech, suggests people are overlooking the obvious.
“We still have this gigantic obstacle called COVID-19,” she said. “It’s not going away anytime soon. I think that’s really the biggest point. That really dictates what it is we can and can’t do and what we should and should not do.”
Yet the NFL marches forward — and gladly explains how and why.
A medical committee that includes the Infection Control Education for Major Sports was formed in March by the NFL and NFLPA. The group set forth protocols it said would allow the NFL to play this fall.
The league and players have continued to negotiate the terms of the protocols — such as the number of preseason games and the frequency of COVID-19 testing.
“Another thing is we’ve been working directly with the White House (Coronavirus) Task Force,” said McCarthy, vice president of Communications for NFL. “We’ve been working directly with the CDC, so the CDC has reviewed the protocols.
“We’ve also talked to every (NFL) market government officials, including mayors, county executives, governors as well. And all our plans, we sent to them to make sure they’re aware and they have comfort level that we can have players going into training camps, players having games.”
At the same time NFL training camps get underway, the NBA and Major League Baseball are scheduled to start their regular seasons.
“The NFL will have the ability to learn from those other sports,” Adalja said. “It’s not quite the same, but there’s still some lessons to learn about testing frequency and protocols and how to deal with contact tracing and quarantine issues.
“Eventually it’s going to come down to what is the risk and what’s people’s risk tolerance to do that. And it’s much different when the athletes are being paid versus when they’re not being paid and when you have the resources to set up a testing regimen as well as to have some sort of bubble-type procedure, which you can do. Because for a professional athlete, this is their profession, this is their job.”
Last week, Tampa Bayleft tackle Donovan Smith expressed his concerns via social media. His wife is pregnant and their first child is expected in three weeks, he wrote.
“Risking my health as well as my family’s heath does not seem like a risk worth taking,” Smith wrote. “How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferral of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? How can I make sure that I don’t bring COVID-19 back to my household?’’
On Sunday, the NFLPA coordinated a Twitter blitz from players around the league.
“What you are seeing (Sunday) is our guys standing up for each other and the work their union leadership has done to keep everyone as safe as possible,” NFLPA president and Cleveland Browns center JC Tretter tweeted in explaining the purpose of the blitz. “The NFL needs to listen to our union and adopt the experts’ recommendations #wewanttoplay”
And so forward the NFL moves, with the NCAA’s Power Five schools and high school football in states like Florida and Texas still set to follow.
Will football be played this fall and, if so, played safely?
“It’s just so controversial and for good reason, because football (involves) so much contact,” said Pettis, who has more than 30 years of experience as an infection preventionist. “It’s one of the things that is very, very difficult to give a definite answer.
“Or, I should say, you can give a definite answer, but is it going to be the right answer?”
Contributing: Jori Epstein