The NFL began the pandemic in an enviable position. The virus shut down every other major sports league, but the country’s most popular sport was in its offseason. It had months to plan how to deliver football to its millions of fans in the fall.
Those months turned into weeks, and the weeks are rapidly turning into days. Training camps are set to fully begin on July 28—and there still isn’t a concrete plan for how the NFL will work in 2020.
Since March, the NFL and NFL Players Association have been locked in negotiations to figure out how to play a sport that’s inherently incompatible with social distancing and features gigantic rosters of enormous athletes, many of whom could be at high risk of complications should they contract the virus.
Now the discord between the two sides has spilled into the open, laying bare a fundamental tension between the league and its players over safety versus football—an issue that has tested the sport for years but is amplified as they confront a pandemic.
“Like many other industries, football’s resistance to change is based on the belief that the best way to run things is the way we’ve always run things,” NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, an offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns, wrote in an open letter last week. “That pervasive thought process will stop this season in its tracks.”
The core of the disagreement: how to safely acclimate players to get ready for a season when the worries are twofold. They need to both stymie the virus’s transmission among players and try to prevent an increase in injuries amid fears they could surge after the pandemic-induced layoff, which kept players out of team facilities since last season.
The two sides have agreed on some of the easier adjustments. They’ve established guidelines for activities inside team facilities and how players can interact after games. Even though NFL players spend all game tackling and ramming into each other, postgame jersey swaps are banned in 2020.
But the two sides are still butting heads on bigger, more substantive overhauls. There isn’t yet a testing strategy in place, with the player representatives wanting tests as frequently as every day. They haven’t resolved how to flatten the league’s financial curve, with the expected shortfall potentially crushing the future salary cap if they can’t come to a resolution. And there’s even disagreement about whether or not there should be a preseason, which the players see as a major health and safety concern.
The NFL already reduced the number of preseason games from four to two, allowing for a more gradual ramp up toward the season. The players don’t think that’s enough. NFLPA representatives from all 32 teams unanimously approved a resolution that there should be zero preseason games “in light of the absence of medical justification for holding.”
Tretter, in his letter, said there was a 25% increase in injuries after the 2011 lockout, which produced a similar extended break. He said that the NFL rejected a recommendation from their joint committees to hold a 48-day training camp, which would knockout the preseason. The NFL had wanted players to show up before July 28 in order to institute that 48-day acclimation period, a proposal the players rejected because it’s earlier than the two sides collectively bargained. The NFL also believes there’s value in holding preseason games in order to test the new coronavirus protocols and get the players physically ready for the season.
Then there are elements that have nothing to do with safety and have to do with football and finances. Coaches and personnel executives typically use preseason games to evaluate players and make roster decisions, a normal process in normal times but one the players believe should be inconsequential relative to the medical risks at hand.
“When we asked for a medical reason to play games that don’t count in the standings during an ongoing pandemic, the NFL failed to provide one,” Tretter wrote. “The league did provide a football reason, though — to evaluate rosters.”
Also in the realm of issues that don’t have to do with health protocols: completely eliminating the preseason would incrementally add to the financial toll that both the league and its players, who share in the revenue, face.
Both sides are already preparing for a significant financial downturn ahead of a season that will, most optimistically, be played with limited fans in attendance. And parallel to the negotiations over health and safety, they are attempting to resolve how to mitigate a significant future drop in the salary cap, an event that would result in droves of players across the league getting released. The players have submitted a counterproposal on finances to the league, but there’s no immediate resolution in sight to the issue that could both significantly affect the money in players’ wallets and how teams construct their rosters.
All of it makes this moment the ultimate convergence of the three major issues—safety, money and football—that the NFL and its players thought they had resolved when they agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement back in March after contentious negotiations.
But then the pandemic happened. After four months, those issues are threatening to boil over into when the NFL should be returning.
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Write to Andrew Beaton at firstname.lastname@example.org
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