As sports leagues rushed to delay or cancel events in March, the N.F.L. made a bold promise to start its season on time and unaltered. Since then, the league has held most of its normal activities, including free agency, the draft and off-season workouts, on time, though remotely rather than in person.
But with the start of training camp just two weeks away, the N.F.L.’s pledge to keep to its schedule is facing its biggest test yet. The league and the players’ union have yet to agree to key ground rules that would govern the players’ return to team facilities, including testing and screening protocols for the coronavirus, the length of the preseason, procedures for players who want to opt out of the season and how to offset the loss of revenue that would result from holding games without fans this season.
The two sides held a conference call on Monday, but made little progress, according to Richard Sherman, a member of the union’s executive committee. On Twitter, he said he and his union colleagues “were blunt and honest” with the owners and “will not compromise our players’ health in these discussions.” They planned to continue talking on Tuesday.
In the months since the new collective bargaining deal was signed in March, the league and the N.F.L. Players Association have continued to agree on points of policy. In June, the two sides agreed on guidelines for off-season workouts and opening training facilities to coaches and limited staff. Last week, they found common ground on the terms regulating protocols for players in training camp and games, notably setting rules about social distancing on sidelines and in locker rooms, and prohibiting postgame jersey swaps, a provision that drew players’ dismay on social media despite its union having signed off.
Finding a way to safely monitor more than 2,000 players for the coronavirus has proved to be thornier, and if the unresolved issues are not settled this week, players may not have enough time to travel to join their teams and observe necessary quarantines, forcing the league to delay the start of training camp.
“The upshot of everything that’s gone on thus far is that no one knows anything, there’s no clear line of information about what’s going to happen,” said David Canter, an agent who represents numerous players. “What happens on these conference calls is one question leads to 50 more questions. The players don’t know the answers, the agents don’t know the answers, the union doesn’t know the answers.”
Canter reeled off a list of questions that he said were still unanswered: Will players who contract the coronavirus be paid their salaries while in quarantine? Can players sit out the season without being removed from a team’s roster? Will there be any accommodation for players with pre-existing conditions? If several players on a team are infected, will training camp be halted?
Other major sports leagues have chosen to operate under the same basic labor rule when it comes to the pandemic: Players with pre-existing medical conditions can petition to sit out and still be paid; others who are merely fearful of the virus can sit, too, but will not be paid.
There is also debate about preseason games. The team owners can open training camp at their discretion and hold up to four preseason games per team, though they have pressed the players to approve a proposal halving the preseason. The joint league-union medical committee recommended cutting the number of preseason games to one or two to reduce the risk of infection but still allow coaches to see new players in live games and so players can become acclimated to new game day protocols. The union, though, has proposed eliminating all such games to reduce travel and the risk of infection.
Mike Tannenbaum, an analyst for ESPN and a former general manager of the Jets, said that holding at least one preseason game between teams that are near each other would help players and coaches adjust to the new rules and prepare for games at full speed.
“It’s not a perfect solution, but it will reduce risk,” he said.
Tannenbaum also suggested liberalizing rules to let veterans join the practice squad so that if a player on the roster tests positive for the virus, the team will have experienced replacements.
Then there are the broader economic questions that the owners and the union are still debating. With the virus raging in California, Florida, Texas and other states with N.F.L. teams, the likelihood that fans will be able to attend games is diminishing. The owners and union must come up with a formula for how to recoup the lost revenue from tickets, food, luxury boxes and merchandise sold on game days.
The owners have proposed putting 35 percent of players’ salaries in escrow and then returning whatever amount is not needed once the losses are tallied. The union rejected this proposal outright because it would impose a heavy burden on players in a single year.
“All the owners are trying to do is recoup all the losses from all their business in one year,” said Lorenzo Alexander, a member of the union’s executive committee. “There’s no way you can ask a guy to go out there with Covid-19 and take 35 percent less money.”
Updated July 7, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
Instead, the union prefers spreading the losses over as many as 10 years by reducing the salary cap, or the amount that teams can pay players, in smaller annual increments. Better to have a generation of players absorb the losses over many years, during which the league’s revenue will grow, especially after new broadcast deals are signed in the next year or two. “There’s going to be enough money to smooth it out,” he said.
Cutting the salary cap over many years could have unintended consequences, though. Teams could sign less expensive players to keep their payroll within league limits, hurting experienced veterans.
“You’re going to see a lot of renegotiation of contracts and see some marginal players cut from the books who might have stayed on,” said Timothy Derdenger, who teaches sports marketing at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon. “Teams will get younger.”
The one thing that all sides are bracing for is a wave of positive tests for the coronavirus. Some players, coaches and even one owner, Michael Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals, have tested positive, and if the experience of Major League Baseball and other leagues that have returned is any guide, many more N.F.L. players will test positive once they return to training camp.
Unlike the N.B.A. and Major League Soccer, which have created restricted environments to reduce the risk of infection, N.F.L. players will return home at the end of the day, which means they can be exposed to infection often.
Given how drastically infection rates are rising across the country, the N.F.L. and the union may have to accept a lot of uncertainty in their rules and protocols if they hope to start their season on time.
“The virus doesn’t care about the N.F.L. calendar or anyone or anything,” Canter, the player agent, said.