In a normal year, a verbal riff like this by Sean McVay might have been funny, since his tone of voice brought to mind Allen Iverson’s rant about “practice.”
McVay, the Rams’ coach, was on a media conference call with Anthony Lynn, the Chargers’ coach, promoting the new season of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and talking about the NFL’s efforts to keep training camps and games safe from the coronavirus.
“We’re really sitting here talking about handleless doors, when we coach football and we play football?” McVay exclaimed last month. “Is this crazy, Coach Lynn? We’re talking about some of this stuff, and we’re playing football? Going to social distance, but we play football? Hey, this is really hard for me to understand.”
Lynn laughed, but mirthlessly.
“I know, it’s tough,” he said.
The two men spoke for many people watching anxiously as the NFL gets ready to follow other sports in returning to practice and games with the scheduled start of preseason camps later this month, amid rising COVID-19 death tolls in many states in the sixth month of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak.
In early July, the NFL sent a 42-page memo to teams outlining safety protocols for camps and preseason games. The pandemic playbook covers plans for team facility access, health screenings, social distancing, virtual meetings, meal consumption, personal protective equipment supplies, secure travel procedures, limited media and fan interaction, and locker- and weight-room modifications. It devotes 11 pages to what to do if any of the safeguards break down and someone in a team facility tests positive for the virus.
Whew. (Apologies for exhaling.)
As of Saturday, the NFL and NFL Players Association were still negotiating over issues like the frequency of health screenings (players want tests and results daily) and the number of preseason games (the league cut the schedule from four to two; players want none), as well as the league’s wish for players to give back some salary money to make up for teams’ loss of revenue if attendance is limited.
It all underscores the offensive-tackle-sized truth: Of all sports, football is the hardest to play in a pandemic. Yes, football has a few advantages in this regard over other sports, and NFL has a few advantages over the college and high school levels. But football has far more disadvantages, beginning with the obvious one: There’s no way to play it without physical contact unless you want 60 minutes of kickoff returns for touchdowns.
“If ever there was a contact sport, it’s football,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview on the SiriusXM NFL Radio channel in early July.
Tory Lindley, president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and a senior associate athletic director at Northwestern University, said football ranks with amateur wrestling, ice hockey and lacrosse on the list of sports putting athletes at the highest risk of catching the coronavirus.
“There can be some debate with some sports,” Lindley said Tuesday from Chicago in an interview via Zoom. “However, there is no debate where football belongs.”
In classic NFL Films footage, the images of linemen facing off on a frosty day, their condensed breath merging across a line of scrimmage, are a dramatic prelude to the collisions to come. Viewed today, they illustrate how a virus could be passed from player to player and team to team.
Athletic health experts interviewed for this story said it’s not the contact but the repeated proximity of players to one another that could cause problems for the NFL.
Those problems would only begin with an infection, because teams will have to follow up a positive test by tracing and possibly isolating other players.
“If you have a defensive end who has a virus, now you have to go back and see everyone he contacted during the game,” said Eric Post, an assistant professor of exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State, who has been interviewing athletic trainers to document best practices. “That could be an offensive lineman, a running back. You’re going to have a lot of players having to isolate for two weeks.”
The sheer number of people on a team increases football’s risk of infection. NFL teams begin training camp with 90 players before trimming the roster to 53 for the season. A coaching staff can number two dozen.
Squeezing them into standard locker and weight rooms wouldn’t be safe.
The Chargers, following NFL and local government mandates at their L.A. offices and Costa Mesa training facility, have expanded and modified locker-room space, moved weight training facilities outdoors, and acquired wearable technology to permit social distancing, said Catherine Iste, the team’s vice president of human resources and infection control officer, in a statement.
The Rams presumably have made changes similar to the Chargers’, but didn’t get specific about their Thousand Oaks facility, and didn’t make a team official available to discuss the challenge of playing football in a pandemic, citing the ongoing negotiations over protocols.
NFL clubs held video-stream team meetings instead of normal training sessions, and had employees work from home for most of the offseason.
The league ordered teams to hold training camps at their home facilities this year. The Rams will be at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks instead of UC Irvine. Athletic trainers outside the league said there’s a downside to this: Most players will be commuting from home, instead of living in the more controllable environment of a nearby hotel or campus dormitory.
Although the battle with the virus might be lost in the trenches, it can be won at the training camp entrance if carriers are kept out.
“You won’t have a breakout if you don’t bring the virus into the practice session. It’s really that simple,” Lindley said.
The NFL’s advantages in the battle against the coronavirus include the fact it is going last and learn from other sports leagues’ experiences, the peak fitness of pro athletes, and the fact that football players wear helmets that could be fitted with translucent face shields.
Lindley joked that for researchers, developing a workable face shield for football is a priority exceeded only by developing a coronavirus vaccine.
NFL’s one great advantage over lower levels of football is that it has the money to pay for the best testing, needed changes at team facilities, hygiene home and away, and training and medical staffs to oversee the effort.
“It makes containing any spread, or testing or getting test results, much easier than we have at the high school level,” said Heather Harvey, chairwoman of the California Athletic Trainers’ Association’s secondary schools committee and a certified athletic trainer at A.B. Miller High in Fontana.
Can the NFL make it work?
Lindley said it’s “premature” to say no. He’s watching other sports for clues, including the NBA, whose teams are living in a “bubble” in Orlando while practicing for a resumption of games.
“If the NBA succeeds, that demonstrates a model (showing which) precautions necessary both during and after work give you the best chance to succeed,” Lindley said.
But Post said he’s “not particularly optimistic” about the NFL. He’s watching Major League Baseball’s uncomfortable return to training, and seeing players in various sports opt out.
“From one (college) trainer, we heard that Mike Tyson quote about ‘Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,’ ” Post said. “I think that sums it up.”