The NFL’s chief medical officer said Thursday that as the league oversees the gradual reopening of teams’ facilities, he is “very optimistic” that the sport will be able to have a complete 2020 season that begins on time in September, even with the inevitability of some players, coaches or staffers testing positive for the novel coronavirus.
Allen Sills said in a phone interview that the league is developing protocols with the NFL Players Association that will include “very frequent testing” of players for the virus, adding that the NFL is “certainly looking for solutions” by which fans could safely attend games this fall and winter.
Sills’s comments came as the league told teams in a memo Thursday that coaches can return to team facilities beginning Friday.
“I think that I personally remain very optimistic that we’re going to be able to have a 2020 season and have it along the schedule that we’ve planned,” Sills said. “That’s what we’re planning toward. But we recognize that we have to continue to evaluate the state of the pandemic and what’s happening across the country and what the current public health guidelines are.”
Teams’ facilities previously were reopened to other employees, not including coaches and most players, under strict protocols that include temperature checks of employees and visitors and social-distancing measures inside workplaces. With the coaches’ return Friday, each NFL team is permitted to have as many as 100 employees in its facility provided that it remains in compliance with any state or local restrictions, according to the league’s memo.
The next step for the NFL and the NFLPA is determining when players will be permitted to return to teams’ facilities. The two sides have been working to develop the protocols under which players will be tested. Sills said Thursday it had not been specified yet how frequently players will be tested during training camp and the season.
“That’s a very active discussion with the Players Association right now,” Sills said. “I think that it’s safe to say that we will have a very active surveillance program with very frequent testing. I don’t have a specific time interval that I can give you at this point. . . . We’re looking to detect new infections in asymptomatic individuals at as earliest a stage as possible so that we can make sure that we isolate them from a team environment.”
The protocols also will direct how teams deal with any positive test.
“Odds are that we will have positive cases among players and coaches and staff and other people,” Sills said. “That’s even if our protocols are very extensive and if everyone does their part and is very cautious throughout. If the disease remains endemic in a population, then it’s very likely that we will have some positive cases. Our goal is obviously to mitigate that and to try to minimize that risk as much as possible, but also to try to set up a surveillance program that identifies any newly infected individual at the earliest possible stage and isolate them from the rest of the team environment.”
To this point, only players undergoing medical treatment or rehabilitating from injuries are allowed to be in teams’ facilities. Teams have been conducting their offseason programs for players remotely. That policy is to remain in effect at least through mid-June. Teams’ offseason programs are to conclude by June 26.
The league is leaving open the possibility that, as part of its ongoing deliberations with the NFLPA, some players will be permitted back in teams’ facilities on a limited basis later this month. But the NFLPA would have to agree to that, and according to a person familiar with the situation, the union is not inclined to allow players to return to teams’ facilities before June 26.
The NFL has said it is planning to have a full and on-time season but that it is also contemplating contingencies, including the possibilities of games being played in empty or partially filled stadiums.
“I’m certainly involved in those conversations,” Sills said. “But that’s a conversation that multiple sports leagues around the world and throughout North America are having. It’s a conversation that we continue to have with public health authorities. We won’t act in isolation there. But we are certainly looking for solutions and ways that we can get fans safely in the stands to be part of our games. . . . I would expect that we’re going to have new knowledge and new data that emerges over these coming months that will help us as we make those decisions.”
Sills said the league has had a “tremendous collaboration” with the players’ union in developing the protocols. He said the NFL will continue to follow “a very phased-in approach” and will adapt to “emerging knowledge” about the virus.