With the sports world trying to reopen, the NFL has a major advantage over the other team pro leagues. MLB, the NBA, and the NHL are all set to start things before the still unannounced beginning for football training camps. That means that pro football can watch and learn to try avoiding mistakes as well as get a bit of a roadmap for what is ahead. Baseball already has had some players individually working out at spring training facilities. And that has not gone well at all.
After multiple reports of positive tests for COVID-19, the Texas Rangers, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, and San Francisco Giants all announced they were shutting down their “spring” training facilities. That was shortly followed by an announcement that all teams would suspend operations and leave.
That has to be disturbing for the NFL. It certainly does not want to go through starting camps in late July, only to have to shut things down again and try to regroup.
There are obvious similarities to the two situations, but some notable differences as well. First, all baseball pre-season training is conducted in the states of Florida and Arizona. This is especially problematic because those two states are experiencing some of the largest increases in coronavirus cases in the nation. Also, the question of just how many games would be played before starting the postseason is still very much in doubt. The players and owners have failed to come to an agreement, with money not surprisingly the main factor. Baseball is also facing negotiations over a new CBA after the 2021 season. That is expected to be acrimonious, and tension over that has made reaching a mutually acceptable structure for restarting the season harder.
Another significant difference is the large number of practice games that are held in baseball. That affords many more possibilities for player-to-player transmission of the virus on the field. The NFL normally only has four preseason games for each team, plus the extra Hall of Fame exhibition. That is already under consideration for a reduction, likely to only two.
The parallels, though, are probably more important. Baseball is second to football in the number of personnel on each roster, which makes their training camps similar in numbers to the NFL’s. They have a 40 man roster which is pared down to the regular season 26 man roster (just increased from 25 this year) but they also bring in minor league tryout players and extra catchers. From a statistical point of view, this should yield similar data on infection rates and possible spread. The fact that they have already had to back up due to those positive tests shows that it is very likely to happen for pro football. Several NFL teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, have already seen players have positive tests even before players are allowed back to the team facilities.
That is bad news for football’s plans to restart operations, even under the new normal rules. Now the NFL will be watching closely to see what the next step is for MLB, and that is still very much in doubt. Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has raised the specter of cancelling the season entirely. While that is partly due to the inability of the owners and players to come to an agreement on the number of games, it also reflects some concern over the ability to limit the spread of the disease at all and the resultant threat to the health and careers of the players and staffs.
Those are obviously legitimate concerns for all NFL teams. If baseball does find a way to go forward and not have a shutdown before completing the World Series, it will be a sign that there is hope for football to have a season. An outright cancellation of the remainder of the 2020 season would put pressure on football and the other pro leagues to consider taking the rest of the year off. Another halt after starting baseball up would be just as problematic. Head coaches John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay have already publicly questioned how teams can maintain social distancing the NFL says will have to be part of things.
Further, we haven’t really heard from the players themselves. One major star, Von Miller of the Denver Broncos, has already gone through a serious bout of the disease. He has asthma, a known high-risk factor, and his recovery has been difficult and may affect his ability to perform this year. That must be worrisome for players across the league. Now the NFLPA medical director has advised against any kind of group workouts before camps begin, an acknowledgement of the dangers involved.
Even more at risk are coaches and staff, many of whom are in their sixties or even older and therefore in a known high-risk group. The most threatened group of all are the owners, many of whom are geriatric. They are pushing to get the game started, but may be forced to self-isolate out of caution.
We all yearn for a football season, but there are major perils along the way. Already, many college programs are facing major concerns as they have multiple athletes testing positive. LSU recently put 30 players in isolation, and Clemson reportedly has had 23 players test positive. With many states that are home to NFL franchises seeing increases in cases, there is a real possibility that one or more of them could shut down sporting events even without fans in attendance.
As of now, all we can do is watch and hope. Unfortunately, that hope is taking some major hits.