Both the NFL and the NCAA have been operating publicly throughout the cornonavirus/COVID-19 as though they feel their seasons will be able to proceed on schedule. The NFL has twice held big splashy events in the draft and the announcement of the schedule, while some colleges are now allowing athletes to return for on-campus workouts. But a lot of very basic questions remain, and the biggest of all hasn’t even been addressed by either entity. It was raised once more last week on the air by ESPN sports commentator and co-host of “Pardon The Interruption” Tony Kornheiser in very straight-forward fashion. He said he couldn’t possibly see how you could have either pro or college football this season.
“Football is a contact sport,” Kornheiser said. “How do you have social distancing in a sport where people are constantly in contact with each other?” To my recollection, no one has yet addressed this reality in all the volumes of speeches and statements made by NFL and NCAA spokespersons. If it’s not safe to have spectators in the stands, which evidently is going to be the case, how much sense does it make to have athletes constantly hitting and tackling each other? How can you minimize the threat of infection if it’s true that keeping your distance is the best to prevent it? Unless the NFL and NCAA plan to change their rules and go to either a touch or flag format, every play the risk of someone infecting someone else would seem awfully high.
Already the specter of problems with protocols for training camp has been raised. Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said last week that the restrictions the NFL is applying to players returning to team facilities are “humanely impossible.” These include everyone wearing masks indoors, screening for players and team personnel to determine whether they’ve had or are having symptoms and restructuring locker rooms to keep players six feet apart. Other restrictions include virtually conducting any meetings with 20 or more participants unless you can establish social distancing, and holding in-person meetings outdoors.
Keep in mind these are just rules for letting players back into the facilities. Harbaugh added that while the team was going to do everything possible to adhere to the rules, “We have to be able to communicate with each other in person. We have to practice.”
Later Harbaugh added “I’m pretty sure the huddle is not going to be six-feet spaced. Are guys to shower one at a time all day? Are guys going to lift weights one at a time all day? These are things the league and the (players association) needs to get a handle on and needs to get agreed with some common sense so we can operate in a 13-hour day in training camp that they’re giving us and get our work done.” These are just things that are being discussed regarding pre-season.
No one has yet said what happens if a player gets the virus during a game, nor how rigorous will testing be during the week leading up to one. Also, what about the officials? How will be they be monitored? It’s already assumed that broadcast and print media won’t be allowed anywhere near the access they are used to getting, but what exactly will be standard protocol in that regard? It’s interesting that with training camps supposed to start next month and pre-season games in August, there remains such widespread uncertainty, and that’s just in the NFL.
Things are even less settled among the colleges, where some Power 5 conferences are proceeding full speed ahead and others have schools who aren’t even allowing on-campus classes to start in the fall. All types of scenarios are being suggested, from having some teams only playing eight-game schedules to eliminating all non conference and traveling rivalry games. Colleges are already facing major fiscal problems with the reality of no fan attendance being allowed certain to have a huge impact on game day income. If games are also lost, the hit that some schools, particularly the FBS and smaller ones’ athletics budgets will take would be devastating.
With medical experts saying a vaccine is at minimum about six to nine months away and possibly longer, there don’t seem to be any easy solutions available in regards to the 2020 pro and college football seasons. Setting aside the fact it’s not even a sure thing they are going to happen, whether they can or not, and whether they should or not pose lots of difficult questions that must be resolved in the days ahead.