The NFL is resolute that its 2020 season will proceed as normal—or at least the league is resolute on saying so publicly.
Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel, told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon that “all of our discussions, all of our focus, has been on a normal, traditional season starting on time, playing in front of fans in our regular stadiums.” The NFL regular season is scheduled to start a little more than five months from now, and projecting a month or even a week out has proved to be a fool’s errand during the coronavirus pandemic. But the league plans to release its 2020 schedule no later than May 9 (just a short delay from the usual April schedule release), and Pash said that the schedule is expected include international games.
The NFL just wrapped two days of conference calls in lieu of the league meetings that would have taken place in Florida this week, one with team presidents and one with club owners. In the media call directly following the owners’ call, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, referenced the need to make contingency plans and communicate those to clubs. But Pash, prompted by a league spokesperson to jump in, followed up by saying there was no discussion in either call about a shortened season or any change to the structure of the season—despite the global health crisis that has led to a one-year postponement of the 2020 Olympics and the suspension of every major sports league in America.
There is a lot of money on the line for the NFL if there is any interruption to the season, which is no doubt why the NFL so resolutely, defiantly even, announced that it is planning for a normal season under circumstances that are anything but. Major companies, namely advertisers and sponsors, are currently making cuts, but the NFL wants them to know it is planning to go forward so they plan to go forward with their business. Pash was pressed multiple times about potential adjustments to the season: Could games be played in front of no fans? Could the start date be postponed? Each time, he deferred back to his statement that they are planning for a regular, complete season, “similar to what we play every other year.”
As the pandemic hit the U.S., the NFL moved forward with free agency and the new league year on schedule, though there was no traveling for player visits or physicals. About a week info the free agency period, the NFL Physicians Society said that club doctors would not be conducting any medical exams related to NFL business, believing that was not an appropriate use of resources during the pandemic. Offseason programs are currently suspended, though the league and players association are working out ways to conduct meetings or workouts via Zoom call.
The next major event on the NFL calendar, the draft, will also be taking place on schedule from April 23-25, though with some modifications taking into account the national social distancing guidelines that are in place through at least the end of next month. The NFL plans to have a hub from where commissioner Roger Goodell will make the pick announcements, and video connections to all 32 clubs as well as the homes of about 50 top prospects. Each group must have 10 people or fewer, each spaced six feet apart, observing rules such as hand-washing and keeping away anyone with a fever or coronavirus symptoms. Vincent said they are also exploring giving clubs a one- or two-minute extension on the clock to make trades.
The NFL is consulting with medical professionals, including its chief medical officer Allen Sills and infectious disease partners at Duke, as it moves forward under circumstances unlike any other it has faced. Asked specifically what information has given the league confidence that it can conduct a “normal” season, Pash referenced “how the curve has trended down and tailed off in other countries, and what they believe will be the result based on the modeling that has been done in this country.” And if not? When would the contingency planning have to take place in earnest?
“A lot of it will depend on what the medical and public health situation is,” Pash said. “If the modeling is as we’ve been given to understand, we may not have to get very far down that road. If things take a different turn and different regulations are put in place, we’d have to address it in a more substantial way. For the time being, we are pretty confident we will be able to go on schedule.” Or, at the least, they are intent on projecting that assertion publicly.
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