NFL trying to iron out plans, precautions for training camps

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

NFLPA representatives JC Tretter (Browns) and director DeMaurice Smith discuss the NFL's plans to start season amid pandemic.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn will get the rookies into training camp on Tuesday before the veterans arrive July 28.

Quarterbacks and injured players are set to report on Thursday, according to a memo sent to the teams on Saturday.

However, the NFL and the NFLPA, the player’s union, are in bumpy talks to iron out the return to work protocols and plans for the exhibition season. There have been four conference calls over the past few weeks. The NFLPA had a call Thursday night with team doctors from teams in coronavirus “hot spots” such as Texas, Arizona and Florida.

“We’ve been serious and a little bit hard-nosed with the league about making sure that all of our partners out there in the world who try to do the best by a group of people need to be heard,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said Friday. “As we are going forward, we certainly understand that given where we are, we’ve got to figure out the right balance about things.”

Houston and Kansas City told their rookies to report Monday.

“We have players, as we’ve spoken to our membership, who are nervous about flying from a relative safe location directly into a hot spot with their families, their kids and their wives,” NFLPA president J.C. Tretter said. “That’s a major concern with stuff going on in Houston and Miami. How safe is that? Our job is to hold the NFL accountable and have them answer those questions.”

There’s hope that both sides will work out the details and get on to a season with reduced capacities in most NFL venues.

“I don’t see the season shutting down,” said Dr. Rand McClain, a leader in the regenerative and sports medicine fields. “I don’t see there being an issue for the NFL. There really shouldn’t be an issue for any of these leagues unless they are really dropping the ball. I’m not blaming just the league, but the players have to drop the ball, too, for it to fall apart.”

The NFL is watching closely as Major League Baseball, the NBA and MLS attempt to return to the field.

“The NFL is in a great position because they have time to learn from the other league’s mistakes,” said McClain, co-founder and chief medical officer of LCR Health in Santa Monica, Calif. He pointed to the NBA making sure to test or screen the drivers of the team vans inside the bubble in Orlando.

Tretter, and high-profile members such as Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman, have been vocal about the slow progress.

“Our normal return date for training camp is quickly approaching, and we are still far from back to ‘normal,’” Tretter wrote in a NFLPA letter. “Our main concern is player safety, both in regard to preventing the virus’ transmission as well as preventing injuries after an extended and historically unique layoff.”

Falcons player rep Josh Harris said the main issue is player safety.

“A lot of things that need to be taken care of, especially on the testing front, before we can really move forward,” Harris said. “The good news is that it has been progressing and hopefully soon we’ll be able to start reporting and be able to go through the processes that have been laid out by health and safety guidelines to safely return back to work.”

There isn’t going to be a return to normalcy this season.

“We’re not going to make it 100% safe,” McClain said. “The sport itself is not 100% safe, but we do the best that we can to mitigate the risk of a concussion, a broken neck, that sort of thing.

“What we are trying to do here, no one is saying that we can eliminate the risk of coronavirus, but we are trying to mitigate the risk as much as possible. Hence, the regular testing.”

But how much testing? The players, reportedly, want daily testing, while the teams want to test periodically.

“Assuming everyone is following the social-distancing and the mask wearing guidelines etc., outside of the game and outside of scrimmage and camp and what not, then when they do enter the game where there is obviously contact, that they have already been screened, they shouldn’t be carrying the virus and there shouldn’t be a problem,” McClain said. “That’s the whole idea here.”

A total of 72 players have tested positive for COVID-19 over the offseason, according to the NFLPA. With all teams at or near the 90-man roster limit, there are 2,880 player slots in the league, with 2.5% having tested positive over the offseason.

Rams offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth shared a story about how COVID-19 ran through his family after one family member attended a simple lunch with a friend in California.

“A couple of days later we were traveling all together, and she started not feeling well and decided to get a test,” Whitworth said. “The next thing we know she had it. A couple of days after that, our kids had it. We were seven-for-seven at that point. ... It was scary.

“For our family and our kids, we ended up OK, and everything seemed to go pretty normal, a pretty mild case. But for her parents, it wasn’t that way.”

There likely will be more positive tests upon the players return. The teams will have to test all of the them.

“When we see the initial spike in cases, when guys enter camp, that’s expected,” McClain said. “That’s where we’ve drawn the line. That’s where the entrance is if you will. ... That’s the whole purpose of the testing, to (screen) out these guys that are already infected.”

After the initial screenings, the players will need to follow the protocols.

“What we are seeing now is not unusual,” McClain said.

Testing every day is aggressive.

“I think every other day is adequate,” McClain said. “I think that’s pretty aggressive. I think every day, I don’t know why you need to push the limits. If they are just doing one test or the other, the serological vs. the molecular test, or are they testing for antibodies or testing for the virus itself? You are still talking about $100 to $200 a day maximum (per test), which isn’t chump change. That’s a lot of cold beer.”

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton and Falcons running back Todd Gurley were interviewed by former New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz on Odell Beckham‘s YouTube channel last week. Both expressed concern about the coming season.

“We want to live this normal life again, but it’s invisible,” Newton said of the coronavirus. “You don’t know if it’s here. You don’t know if I got it. You don’t know if you got it. If the cameraman’s got it. That’s the scariest thing. ... For us, our sport, you pass DNA off.”

Gurley, the former Georgia standout who was signed as a free agent this offseason, is bracing for a bizarre return.

“(Football) is going to take care of itself,” Gurley said. “I’ve been balling my whole life. That’s what I do. As long as I (can) be consistent and put in the work every day, then I know what’s going to happen on that field.”

Gurley noted that while he understands playing without fans, playing games without them would be different.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that you just have to come to an agreement with yourself and understand that this is what it is,” Gurley said.

The NFLPA agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement with the league in March and offseason protocols for workouts and the coaches and limited staff to return to offices.

“How safe is it to start back up a football season at this moment with locations in this country where teams are located going through giants spikes of this virus,” Tretter said. “That has to be something that is looked at as we make any decision. The health-and-safety aspect has to be taken care of for the players.”

Getting to camp and pulling off this season figures to be more problematic.

“We don’t want to merely return to work and have the season shut down before we even get started,” Tretter wrote. “The NFLPA will do its part to advocate for player safety. We will continue to hold the NFL accountable and demand that the league use data, science and the recommendations of its own medical experts to make decisions.

“It has been clear for months that we need to find a way to fit football inside the world of coronavirus. Making decisions outside that lens is both dangerous and irresponsible.”

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