After spring successes, NFL turns focus to camp
With the NFL schedule now published, the league, the players union and teams are all joining a three-pronged push to execute the season as planned if at all possible.
The questions are difficult and every day counts — training camps would typically open in July, less than nine weeks away.
“You’re seeing the beginning of the NFL and its clubs doing the work to be in position to open,” said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. “And so the first phase is getting nonplayer personnel back in to facilities. The second phase, working hand in hand with the players, is getting players back in the facility, then looking ahead to training camp, and then looking ahead to games itself and the stadium experience.”
The first phase hit an inflection point on May 15, when all teams had to submit their plans for reopening to employees. These plans call for detailed disinfecting and social distancing policies and extensive planning for what happens if any employees get sick.
The second part — reopening to football — will be more difficult because it carries inherently greater risk and must be approved by the NFLPA. The union and the league say they are working effectively through a joint committee to determine the path back to work, but the union has raised serious questions about the availability of sufficient COVID-19 testing supplies.
In April, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said “we are probably going to continue to be tested” to find ways to safely progress to training camp and the season. But, he added, he wants to avoid “binary choices” like playing or not.
“I know our fans are excited about us coming back, and they should know that both the union and the league are looking forward to the day when that can happen,” Smith said.
If the union-league talks evolve into something more acrimonious, the union appears to have a strong position. That’s because the NFLPA contract, ratified just as the pandemic was unfolding, does not have a general force majeure clause that automatically cuts salaries in the event of disruptions to the season. If owners want to cut 2020 payroll to account for the likelihood of diminished gate receipts, they’ll need cooperation from the union. (The 2021 salary cap would be adjusted downward to reflect losses this year under the contract.)
Meanwhile, teams and stadium operators are also starting to think through how venues will operate at reduced capacity. Many of their questions are centered on how to minimize risk to fans, and how those expenditures will pencil out with fewer tickets sold.
The NFL also must confront the widely divergent local laws that apply. Last week, governors declared Arizona and Florida, home to four NFL teams combined, open to pro sports. Meanwhile, meaningful reopening of workplaces and the resumption of large gatherings in California (home to three teams) and New Jersey (two) appear to be months away.
For now, the NFL says no team can reoccupy its facilities until everybody is permitted. But unless that changes, the timely start to training camps already looks unlikely. Owners are expected to discuss those competitive fairness issues during conference calls this week.