The NFL sits in a unique situation. The league is afforded more time than other sports and leagues to implement health and safety protocols, survey and analyze the industry landscape, and wait and see how the coronavirus pandemic plays out over the next few months before beginning its season less than 100 days from now.
Major European soccer leagues have either already restarted—Germany’s Bundesliga returned to action on May 16—or announced dates to begin play again: LaLiga (June 11), Premier League (June 17) and Serie A (June 20).
In North America, the UFC held its first live event since the pandemic on May 9 and NASCAR returned on May 17. The NBA has a tentative start date of July 31 for its 22-team return in Orlando, while the NHL announced it will forgo the remainder of its regular season in lieu of a 24-team playoff with dates and locations still to be determined.
MLS and its players reached a new agreement to avoid a lockout, while setting the stage for a return in 2020 with a tournament in Orlando. The NWSL announced its 25-game Challenge Cup from June 27 to July 26 in Utah. MLB and the MLBPA are going back and forth in an effort to find a compromise for a potential return this season.
The NFL, on the other hand, is slowly rolling out phased measures toward reopening team facilities with commissioner Roger Goodell sending a memo to chief executives, club presidents, general managers and head coaches on May 28 detailing the next steps. As of June 1, organizations “may open ticket offices, retail shops and other customer-facing facilities as long as the operation of such facilities fully complies with state and local regulation.”
The league further informed teams on June 2 that training camp will be conducted only at team facilities this offseason and teams aren’t allowed to hold joint practices. The only exception for camp to be at another location is if “a club can demonstrate, to the satisfaction of a joint NFL-NFLPA medical task force, that it would not be feasible to conduct at their club facility,” per the memo.
While the NFL is slowly positioning itself to begin its regular season as scheduled on September 10—albeit with or without fans in the stands is still to be determined—the league still faces plenty of logistics questions around the health and safety of its employees, coaches and players amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Player safety is the No. 1 thing on our mind,” said New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, a member of the NFLPA executive committee. “Yes, we understand the livelihoods and economics around the game and what this sport brings to this country, but at the end of the day, we have a responsibility as player leadership to make sure we can go back into a healthy work environment, there are protocols in place, and if someone tests positive what does it mean for that player, that team, the facility and our entire league.
“All of those things need to be weighed, and all those conversations have been going back and forth since we all found out about COVID.”
Jenkins, a two-time Super Bowl champion who recently re-joined the Saints after signing a four-year, $32-million contract in March, was quick to point out how it’s easier for leagues like the NBA and NHL to play at a safe and isolated location or two because rosters are much smaller than in the NFL. The NBA has 30 teams with 15 players each and the NHL has 31 teams with 23-man active rosters, while the NFL boasts 32 clubs with 55-man active rosters per the new collective bargaining agreement (including 90 each during training camp).
Not only does the league have to consider the health and safety of its players, but also the coaching staff and team personnel as well as game officials. Six NFL head coaches are at least 60 years old, while the average age of league game officials is 52.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said the league should expect some personnel to test positive for COVID-19, but how will a team and the league act when/if that occurs? Does the league have enough testing capabilities to ensure its players, coaches and personnel are healthy (without limiting the supply for the general public)?
“I just think there’s so many things now we can’t guarantee to do it in a safe way,” Jenkins said. “I think until then our responsibility as athletes and as sports in general is to continue to preach about safety and preach about patience, making sure we understand how important sports are especially in times of crisis and how it can galvanize a country and the world by bringing people together, but if we can’t do it safely then it’s not beneficial to the athletes, the fans or anybody.
“Right now we’re in a tough situation where we’re waiting to see how this plays out.”
Jenkins said New Orleans has basically suspended its entire offseason with head coach Sean Payton informing players to show up on time and in shape to training camp, which typically begins in mid-July. The team’s OTAs were originally scheduled for May 21-23, May 28-30 and June 3-6.
With less in-person team activities, it’s up to the individual player to prepare himself for when they’re given the go-ahead.
“We can’t expect this to be a normal offseason just because it isn’t,” he said. “For me, I’ve just embraced that, so whatever I can do or whatever I have access to, I use. Spending the time away from the sport is not necessarily a bad thing—you can work on other parts of your life, spend time with your family—and when we do get the green light to come back, it’s just about being in shape and it’s in the most responsible way.”
Jenkins has used his time away from the game to continue to be vocal regarding racial injustice in the United States, following the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. The three-time Pro Bowl safety marched in the streets of Philadelphia, posted his thoughts on social media while wearing a shirt reading “Charge + Convict the Murderers of George Floyd!” and even penned an essay in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
One of the more vocal players in the NFL, Jenkins launched the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation in 2010 to enhance the lives of youth in underserved communities, has held discussions with local police and government officials regarding criminal justice reform, and co-founded the Players Coalition in 2017 to help end social injustices and racial inequality.
Along with the NFL’s Inspire Change Platform, the Players Coalition donated more than $3 million in mid-April to hospitals, health systems and nonprofit organizations in communities of color across seven U.S. cities and states that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s a lot of need and I think as athletes we have the ability to advocate for people,” Jenkins said. “We have the ability to bring these issues to light and draw support, but also for us, really it’s just to sound the horn and continue to sound the horn and continue to be that microphone for those people.”