Of all the team sports, football and social distancing don’t seem to go together. But even in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the NFL is readying to bring a sense of normalcy back to a stressed-out country.
Training camps are preparing to open this week, welcoming back 32 teams, some of them in areas that are Covid-19 hot spots.
There are some officials who think football should skip a season or push it back until the spring. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in June that it would be “very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall” if NFL and college players were not living in isolation and being tested every day.
“Football may not happen this year,” he said at the time.
But the league feels confident at this point a full slate of 16 games per team is possible, given the protocols it has agreed on with the players..
“I think people are trying to be really thoughtful about this,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer and a neurosurgeon. He sat down exclusively with CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and gave him a rare look at how the Atlanta Falcons and the NFL are preparing to play in the midst of a pandemic.
“I think people do look at risk and risk mitigation in different ways. But I feel like it’s the right thing to do to try to learn to live with this virus. I really do,” Sills told Gupta.
But the NFL may have to consider new measures, given the news from Major League Baseball that members of the Miami Marlins tested positive for the virus. Monday’s Marlins’ home opener and the game between the Yankees and Phillies at Philadelphia – where Miami played over the weekend – were postponed.
‘Everything we do is going to have an impact’
Normally, by this time, NFL teams would have already had several offseason gatherings and scores of players would be days into training camp, vying for one of the potential 55 spots on the roster. More than 250 coaches, staffers and other on-site personnel would be around.
Players would be going to team meetings, working out in the weight room, busting heads on the field and eating together in a cafeteria.
But more than 4 million people in the United States have been infected with the virus and more than 147,000 Americans have died. It is unclear whether people who have recovered have any immunity from the virus. A few therapeutics help those with Covid-19, but potential vaccines are still in various phases of trial.
Sills likened his work in bringing back football to his work with his patients.”We know in medicine, we can never eliminate risk, but we do all we can to try to minimize or mitigate those risks,” Sills told Gupta.
Tests part of daily routine
Testing has been a key component in bringing players back. As players enter camp, they will be tested. Players have to have two negative tests within 72 hours in order to participate in training camp.
Thereafter, the union and the league have agreed to test each player daily for at least the first two weeks of training camp, eventually moving to an every-other-day schedule once a team maintains a 5% positivity rate.
Those tests will be conducted by the company BioReference Laboratories. Sills told Gupta that the company opened up laboratory capabilities that weren’t being used.
Both the league and union have said they don’t want their testing program to take away resources from the public.
‘We fully expect to have positive cases’
In the early days, Sills expects they will discover people who are infected.
Last week, based on players who signed into training camp and did their initial testing, the players union said 59 players had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“First of all, we fully expect to have positive cases. We would love it if we didn’t,” Sills told Gupta before the test results were announced. “But if you look at the state of the pandemic right now, I think when players all gather together, we can expect a large number of positive cases.”
Once a player tests positive, he will go into isolation and get the appropriate treatment, Sills said.
And though the public often sees NFL players as men who are in top physical condition, the union says its data shows up to 70% of players fall into categories the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers high risk for Covid-19, such as minorities and people with certain health conditions that include obesity and asthma.
“What we’ve done is track the CDC risk guidelines (and) made decisions on which ones put our players in high risk,” explained DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association. “Players can rely on those risk factors to make decisions about whether they’re going to play or not.”
Mitigation through technology
Technology could help the league try to mitigate some risk.
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Players will have a proximity tracing device on them while they are participating in team activities, even traveling to road games. The devices can provide precise data as to who the players were near, how close they were and for how long.
The devices will “beep” or flash when players or staff get too close to each other and could make it much easier to do contact tracing when a player tests positive. The device does not track GPS location – it just tracks distance.
The league has also worked with sports apparel company Oakley to design a plastic mouth shield for the players’ helmets. It is basically an extension of the eye shield some players wear, Sills said. It will have several layers of plastic and a filtering material in hopes of helping to lowering transmission. How effective it is remains to be seen.
According to the NFL, players are strongly encouraged to use the mouth shield. It is currently not mandatory, but is still under discussion between the NFL and the Players Association.
Other changes include the way players typically would congregate.
At the Falcons’ facility, the dining area has been moved outside under a tent and players will sit solo at tables several feet apart. Weights will be done at a scheduled time with fewer players and barbells will be marked with tape signifying which ones are to be used by a certain group.
Meetings and film-watching sessions will be online instead of in person.
Normally, players would work with a staff of around 200 plus people. But now, only 100 staff will be credentialed to be at the practice facility.
“Our motto is fewer and farther,” Sills said.
At the training facility, staff will spray down equipment in training rooms and there will be black boxes that use UV light to sanitize cell phones and car keys.
NFL and players finally agree on protocols
The league and the union have been intense negotiations over the past few weeks about how to get players back on the field. They discussed a number of issues, including testing protocols, who players can interact with and how, and what options players have to opt out, and finally came to an agreement on Friday.
Shortly thereafter, Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif chose to opt out of playing this season to focus on his work as an orderly in a long-term care facility in Canada. He’s been working there throughout the pandemic.
“Being at the frontline during this offseason has given me a different perspective on this pandemic and the stress it puts on individuals and our healthcare system,” he wrote. “I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities simply to play the sport that I love. If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.”
The head of the players’ union told CNN he wants the league to have better communication with the athletes and their families.
“We have great protocols. While we have the ability to make inspections, if the league fails to stay into close contact with the players in their families and making those changes as needed, the best protocols in the world will not work,” Smith said.
Decisions affect the entire community, not just the league, he said.
“Everything that we do is going to have an impact on families at home, and it’s going to have an impact on first responders, community service and other people in the community, and to believe otherwise is sheer fantasy,” he told CNN.
Players anxious on eve of training camp
The most recent NFL game was the Super Bowl in early February – two days after US officials declared a public health emergency. A month later, the nation took notice as the NBA took players off the court before a scheduled game and the nature of the pandemic became much more real to many people.
Since then, team training facilities have been like ghost towns. Players have worked out with personal trainers while keeping an eye on how states were handling the pandemic
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“They have the same anxiousness that you would have, right. All the issues that you have about your personal safety they have. And they have them as they enter into this football world,” said Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Falcons. “So, they’re relying on us. And they’re relying on the union to make sure that all the protocols we do, everything that we can, is that at the highest level.
McKay said they will proceed slowly at first.
“We want to crawl,” he told Gupta. “We don’t even want to walk, jog, run. We want to crawl, then we want to walk, then we want to jump. We want to make sure they feel safe, feel comfortable and that we’re doing everything we can.”
McKay believes the NFL can do everything in a safe way, learning from the lessons of the other team sports leagues that have opened before it. But unlike the NBA and MLS, which have all of their teams in one city, NFL players will be in dozens of communities, going home at night.
The system can only be strong if NFL personnel adhere to guidelines.
“One of the things that we’ve recognized with this virtual bubble is everybody in that team ecosystem, as we call it, they’re going to share risk, right players, coaches, staff, if they’re around each other each day, they’re going to share risk,” Sills said. “They also share responsibility to each other, which means that they’re each making good choices when they’re away from the facility.”
The NFL season is scheduled to begin Thursday, September 10.
CNN’s Amanda Sealy contributed to this report.