NFL adds new COVID-19 protocols to keep season on track
By Ken Belson
Working overtime to keep its season intact, NFL officials earlier this week introduced additions to existing coronavirus protocols established with the players union following a call between the league office, team owners, general managers and head coaches.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the changes included the introduction of a leaguewide video system to monitor whether players and staff were wearing personal protective equipment like masks while inside team facilities and while traveling. The league is also limiting the number of free agent tryouts per week and placing bans on gatherings outside team facilities.
“Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game,” Goodell said in a memo sent to teams Monday afternoon.
Goodell used the meeting and the memo that followed to ramp up efforts to enforce the following of coronavirus guidelines and to emphasize the impact to the NFL’s business. The hastily called virtual meeting came after a tumultuous week that included the league’s first team outbreak on the Tennessee Titans and two games this week having to be postponed — the Titans-Pittsburgh Steelers game to Oct. 25 and the New England Patriots-Kansas City Chiefs matchup to Monday night. Patrick Mahomes threw for 236 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-10 win for Kansas City.
Going forward, if outbreaks on teams require that a game be postponed, the league will continue to move games to Monday or Tuesday, or later in the season by juggling bye weeks.
After last week’s positive tests to more than a dozen Titans players and team personnel and to one of the league’s biggest names, Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, the league has increased its efforts to police the following of health-related guidelines. Goodell and Troy Vincent, executive vice president in charge of football operations, have sent a ream of memos reminding teams to wear masks properly, physically distance where possible and limit access to locker rooms and other places where players and coaches congregate.
The league also continues to fine coaches and teams that have not abided by its rules, penalizing head coaches seen during games not wearing masks properly $100,000 and their teams $250,000.
The call Monday was a sign that the league was not satisfied that its memos were being taken seriously enough, and that lax adherence to health protocols could jeopardize the goal of playing a full calendar of games at teams’ home stadiums, ending with the Super Bowl in February. Football executives emphasized yet again that the virus is spread in myriad ways and demanded vigilance from franchises.
Those rules have been broken several times, most notably in Las Vegas. Last week, the league fined the Raiders $50,000 after an unauthorized person entered the team’s locker room, potentially exposing players and staff to the virus. Nine players were also fined $15,000 each for attending a charity event that was held indoors last week with hundreds of people who were not wearing masks. A 10th player, Darren Waller, who hosted the event, was fined $30,000.
The NFL has said for months that it expected some players, coaches and staff members would test positive for the coronavirus, in part because team owners and players chose not to create a closed community, or “bubble,” and instead have allowed personnel to leave the relatively secure team facilities after practice every day, dramatically increasing the odds of exposure.
“The big thing for us is to not get comfortable,” Goodell said before the start of the season. “We’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty.”
The inevitable became the inescapable last week when nine players and nine staff members on the Tennessee Titans tested positive for the virus, the league’s first full-fledged outbreak of the season. Soon after the league postponed the Titans’ game against the Steelers (which had been scheduled for last Sunday), the NFL was forced to push back the New England Patriots’ game against the Kansas City Chiefs to Monday night after Newton’s positive test.
There were no further positive tests over the weekend, so the Patriots were allowed to fly to Kansas City, Mo., but in two separate planes — one for players and staff who were exposed to Newton and a second plane for everyone else.
In response to the outbreak in Nashville, Tenn., the league Friday told teams that players and coaches cannot leave their team’s city on bye weeks, and those exempt from testing are still required to report to the team’s facility for daily screening and temperature checks.
The team reported no new positive tests Monday, a sign that the outbreak may now be confined, and none of the Minnesota Vikings, who played the Titans on Sept. 27, tested positive.
Still, there are many other opportunities for players to be exposed to the virus when they are away from NFL-regulated facilities. For now, the league’s approach appears to be to tighten its grip on the spaces it controls — continually reminding players, coaches and staff to adhere to health guidelines, watching them on video and threatening penalties if they don’t — to keep the season on track.
“That’s the right decision to make, before you have to do something more drastic,” said Steve Smith, a sports law attorney at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner who advises teams and leagues on media contracts, stadium operations, licensing and naming rights. “If you have double-digit attacks on six, eight teams, you might have to postpone the season and pick back up. That’s what you have to avoid.”
The unblinking focus on test results comes as a growing number of teams allow fans to attend games in limited capacities. On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans joined about 10 other clubs in welcoming fans into their stadiums. Fans — as well as members of the news media and many others — are not allowed anywhere near the players while they’re working. But the return of paying customers to games is a way for the NFL to reduce some of the billions of dollars in revenue losses this season, even if it means increasing the risk that fans will be exposed by attending large gatherings.
“No one wants to lose billions of dollars,” Smith said.