Every year the release of the NFL schedule is something fans look forward to. What dates to circle, to ask off from work, and weekends to book travel around.
This is not every year.
The schedule is being released on Thursday night. In a coronavirus lockdown it offers hope for fans seeking a sense of normalcy, but what does that mean?
Executive Vice President of NFL operations Troy Vincent told NBC Sports Washington last month that putting the season on hold was never in question: “We are planning to have a full season, we are responsible and we’re doing reasonable planning.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell echoed that during the NFL Draft, saying he expected the season to start on time. And a leaked memo from his office gave guidelines for teams to begin opening facilities this month.
But it's not as easy as just opening the doors - especially when it comes to player safety. So while calendars for the fall are being set, NFL Players Association medical director Thom Mayer is making sure it’s done safely for the players. There's already a thick manual on health and safety for players that existed long before the pandemic.
Now, there will be masks, tests and more before anyone steps foot on the field. And even with the schedule release on Thursday, Mayer isn't so sure it will be safe to follow it as planned.
"This is a novel coronavirus and that's an emerging infectious disease, so novel and emerging are important because we don't know how it acts. All we know is how it has acted here and what we can learn from how it has acted in in China, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and in Europe as well,” Mayer said. “And that’s important because every several days you have to pull up and say 'Now what do we know, now what do we know, now what do we know?' It really is a situation where every time you come up with what you think is an answer - and a solid answer based on science - four or five other questions come up that are downstream from that that you have to deal with. I wouldn't presume to tell the NFL what to do with the schedule, but I do hope it's printed on tissue paper."
When it is safe for the league to start, it won't be as simple as lining up on each side - fans or no fans. And it’s not clear where games will be played. Mayer is working on a subcommittee looking at all different scenarios.
First, there's making sure that there's lots of testing - but in a way that doesn't hurt the communities that host NFL teams.
"If one of those communities suddenly has a re-spike of coronavirus in large numbers of testing, in our view as the NFL Players Association, we think we’ve got to be socially responsible and not be in a position to be diverting testing away from others who need it solely for the NFL," Mayer said. “Everyone thinks it's 'testing, testing, testing' and that's true. But when I hear 'testing, testing, testing’ I hear 'supply chain, supply chain, supply chain.' What are the logistics of getting those tests in the communities in sufficient quantities to allow us to have enough to be able to do what we have to do?"
When all of that is figured out, it will also be a different look on the field.
“Envision a game, if we got there, with coaches on the sideline with masks," Mayer said. "Sean Payton wouldn't have to hold the [playcard] in front so no one could read his lips because he’d have a mask on. The referees would have masks on, we presume, and also we’re trying to figure out how can you attenuate the spread of virus among the players themselves. Everything is on the table. Nothing has been decided."
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