NFL, NCAA COVID-19 Policies Still Evolving

The National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) both hoped that they could get through full seasons without the COVID-19 pandemic affecting them, a notion that was problematic from the start, and at best illogical. Now that pro and college football teams are dealing with outbreaks, it’s clear whatever policies the NFL and NCAA had previously implemented have to be consistently examined, updated and overhauled.

It’s also clear that at least in the NFL, some teams either aren’t fully paying attention to protocols, or just deliberately ignoring them. The Titans’ situation has drawn national attention because it has caused the rescheduling of at least two games. At press time, 23 members of the Titans organization had tested positive. Their game against the Steelers had to be moved from the fourth week of the season to the seventh, while a second home game against the Bills also had to be moved to this past Tuesday (assuming it wasn’t postponed at the last moment.)

Some Titans players have expressed reservations about NFL testing practices and league policies, among them QB Ryan Tannehill. Last Saturday he told USA Today Tennessee that the team’s players weren’t real happy with league policies regarding COVID-19.

“We said from the beginning that testing is not going to prevent the virus from being spread, it’s the way we handle ourselves with all the protocols and handle ourselves outside the building as well,” Tannehill reportedly said.

That feeling may have lead to various Titans, including Tannehill,  participating in an informal workout at a local school on Sept. 30. That was a day after the Titans closed their facility. That action is under review by the NFL, who’s determining what discipline the team will face. According to reports from Yahoo Sports and Bleacher Report among others, the penalties could be anywhere from thousands of dollars in fines to the loss of draft choices. Some national observers were calling for at least a one game forfeit, but no one really sees that happening.

Still, it’s evident now that the season is going to be periodically affected by COVID-19 outbreaks. The Titans aren’t the only team that’s been hit. The New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs have also had players testing positive. The Patriots have temporarily lost the services of both starting QB Cam Newton and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Stephan Gilmore. The Patriots had to have their game against the Chiefs moved to last Monday night. 

Meanwhile various colleges have seen their schedules turned upside down. Both the University of Memphis and Notre Dame went through multi-week layoffs due to the virus’ impact. Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason barely had enough players available for last Saturday’s game against South Carolina and publicly admitted he was unsure whether there would be enough healthy scholarship players ready for this week’s game against Missouri.

At one point it seemed there wouldn’t be any college football this season as most of the non-Power 5 conferences as well as the HBCU schools announced season cancellations. But once the SEC, ACC and Big 12 went ahead and began their seasons, the Big 10 and Pac-12 reversed their stances. Both are now playing reduced schedules, as the desire to salvage as much of the big money television packages as possible overcame previously expressed concerns over player safety.

Both the NFL and NCAA are being cautious about allowing fans, with most capping attendance around 20-25 percent capacity. But the ugly reality is no one can offer definitive predictions regarding COVID-19. Some states that thought they were making progress are now seeing new surges, and it’s very questionable that a vaccine will be readily and widely available before the midpoint of next year at the earliest.

Both pro and college football teams and leagues will have to keep adjusting on the fly and doing their best to make it through the season. They’ll need both player co-operation and a lot of good fortune to succeed in that quest.

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