The NFL has “broad agreement” with the players’ union on safety protocols for conducting the 2020 season this fall, the league’s top medical expert said Tuesday, adding that the NFL will be prepared to deal with the inevitability of players, coaches or other staffers testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
“We have a task force working very diligently on that,” Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said during a conference call with reporters. “We fully well expect that we will have positive cases that arise because we think that this disease will remain endemic in society. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise if new positive cases arise. Our challenge is to identify them as quickly as possible and to prevent spread to any other participants. So we’re working very diligently on that, and we’ll have some detailed plans to share about that at a later time.”
Sills, who briefed team owners earlier Tuesday, did not provide a timetable for the league finalizing operational protocols with the NFL Players Association, saying the sides will have to be prepared to adjust to changing circumstances.
“We’ve already done a tremendous amount of work there,” he said. “We have broad agreement on many, many issues that we continue to discuss. Some of the issues, like we just talked about with testing, we know that’s going to continue to evolve. So we will likely be in a very different place 30 days from now, 60 days from now than we are today. So those conversations will continue. … We just have to remain flexible and adaptable to respond to the new knowledge that’s emerging and to the experience of the other pro sports leagues around the world.
“So I really see it as that it’s not a one-time agreement that we’ll be reaching, something like maybe a collective bargaining agreement. This is much more about an ongoing conversation and, again, working hand in glove where we continue to make the best decisions based on the available data we have at that time.”
The protocols being developed by the league and the players’ union are expected to detail testing procedures and frequency, as well as the process to follow if a player, coach or staffer tests positive. Sills said the NFL is working with other leagues, which will face similar issues.
“I think when you get to football, you do have some unique challenges,” he said. “Obviously football and physical distancing are not compatible with each other. So we know that we’ll have people in close proximity to one another. So there are some unique challenges that we face. But most all of the challenges are going to be common to many of these sports activities.”
The NFLPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
NFL teams were permitted to begin reopening their facilities Tuesday, without coaches and most players at this point, under protocols the league previously established. Those include temperature checks of employees and visitors, and social-distancing measures within offices. Teams are conducting their offseason programs for players remotely, with on-field practices prohibited at least through May 29.
“Competitive issues are always important, and they always are considered in a way to try to preserve equitable treatment of all 32 clubs,” Jeff Pash, the NFL’s top attorney, said during the conference call. “This wouldn’t be an exception to that.”
The NFL’s next major decision will be on training camps, which are scheduled to open in late July. The league must deal with varying state and local restrictions, although its hope to conduct a complete and on-time season with teams playing in their own stadiums was bolstered Monday when the governors of California, New York and Texas expressed support for the resumption of pro sports in their states.
The league is expected to develop protocols for the possibility of having fans in attendance. The NFL also is mulling contingencies that include, according to people familiar with its planning, a delayed or shortened season, games in empty or partially filled stadiums, and games being relocated or rescheduled.
“Everyone that’s around each other in a football environment is going to share risk and is going to share some common exposure with regard to the medical side,” Sills said. “As you think about how you apply these protocols and standards, it will apply to everyone who’s in that grouping.”