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As NFL season rapidly approaches, NFL showing no urgency to deal with COVID-19

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It appears that the NFL was hoping things would blow over, but it gets less likely by the day

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed unfathomable that when COVID-19 reached its (first) zenith back in March that we would still be trying to figure out how to deal with it four months later. And yet, as places begin to reopen, we’re beginning to see new cases spike again. Indeed, July 8’s 62,425 new cases (via The New York Times) was the largest single-day spike the U.S. has seen.

As MLB and the NBA scramble to find their respective seasons, the NFL has appeared to show very little urgency in finding a way to address coronavirus concerns. Its hits have been big. The teleconference NFL Draft was a huge success. But it’s undoubtedly concerning that, with training camp scheduled to start at the end of July, the NFL seems to have no interest in addressing player safety when they’re put into close contact.

Players have taken notice as well. On Wednesday, the Jets’ Alex Lewis went on Instagram to reaffirm that the NFL is not just handling things in-house and keeping them away from the public (the opposite of what MLB did in airing out its negotiations between the MLBPA and MLB owners).

“We are three weeks out from reporting to camp,” Lewis said on IG. “We [are yet to receive] answers to how the NFL plans to handle a season and covid.

“I am not going to be a guine[a] pig. Nor am I going out there to just ‘wing it.’ This is ridiculous.

“I want to see a game plan set in place. That protects the athletes and the families of athletes.”

The Eagles’ Malik Jackson also sent out a lengthy message, calling out the NFL’s lack of preparation.

“It is unacceptable and utterly disrespectful for the owners to have set a camp start date of July 28, 2020...” Jackson wrote. “...Today is July 8 and we have no answers to simple questions we’ve been asking since this pandemic started. We (players) are sons,fathers & brothers wanting to protect our families during this unprecedented time.” Jackson went on to say that “I can not pass Rush from 6 feet away, I cannot defeat a double team from 6 feet away nor can I tackle somebody from 6 feet away (to not do those things in practice, just in games is asinine). This sport is not in any way able to be played 6 feet away, let alone stop the transfer of sweat and blood.”

On the other side of the fence, there is absolutely something to be said for watching how MLB and the NBA play out with their new measures in place. But with MLB starting July 23 and the NBA restarting July 30, the NFL’s July 28 training camp start attempt makes no sense. It doesn’t give the NFL any time to see how MLB’s 67-page handbook or the NBA bubble work out. It’s just window-dressing at that point.

The other argument being put forth by people siding with the NFL is that if other people are returning to work, NFL players shouldn’t be exceptions. Yet they are exceptions. Going into an office can be managed, strictly. Protocols for social distancing can be put in place. NFL players do not have that luxury. They’re lining up face to face and they’re hitting each other. If one player on the field gets it, everyone else is sure to follow.

The NFLPA has also reportedly tried to help manage player safety, per CBS Sports’ Tyler Sullivan, who showcased a document with a nine-point plan to try to protect players in training camp.

Some of these are obvious, such as minimizing time in team facilities and banning mandatory hotel stays, along with limiting training camp activities. Others may be harder to sell, such as cutting preseason rosters from 90 to 80 players and the mandatory use of tracking wristbands on players involved in team activities (team-related travel, at team facilities, etc).

As far as testing goes, the proposal outlines mandatory testing for those with bench and field access and “daily testing for Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals using mid-nasal swab during the first few weeks of camp and weekly testing for Tier 3 individuals,” per Sullivan.

This may be a good start, but it doesn’t address one of the other major issues that is almost certainly lurking just behind figuring out a plan just to return to camp: The money. The Ravens have already announced they will cap out at 14,000 of M&T Bank Stadium’s 71,000 seats if Maryland regulations allow, and other teams will likely follow suit. That means that NFL owners will be losing money, which means that they’ll likely come for the players’ money instead.

Tom Pelissero reported on Wednesday that the NFL may want to hold 35 percent of player salaries in escrow indefinitely to account for fewer fans and a decreased revenue stream. A prorate like what MLB did is obviously out of the question, given the weight of each game. Meanwhile, the NFL has already halved the number of preseason games we’ll see this year, but players are pushing for a full cancellation.

Thus far, the NFL has decided to cancel things as they come, rather than try to figure out how they’ll be played.

All things told, the NFL has been painfully opaque with both players and fans in the midst of this crisis. It has preferred to address issues as they come, rather than acting proactively on them. The Hall of Fame game has been cancelled, preseason games have been cancelled, but those won’t be the real tests. The real tests will be how the NFL handles day-to-day life for the players, who are still being kept in the dark as to how a season will play out and how their safety will be preserved.

And that’s what it should be all about — Player safety. Even if MLB owners handled their negotiations horribly, MLB was at least working on a plan concurrent to those negotiations. The NFL is waiting for guidance from the NFLPA, and yet it continues to show little regard for the player association’s opinion.

At this point, who knows how a season will look, if there is one. Shortening the preseason doesn’t really answer anything. The NFL has done its fans, coaches and players a disservice in how it has handled protocols for a season, and its lack of a plan could well lead to even more things getting cancelled. The league will suffer all the more for it.