FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (CNN Newsource) – The NFL and its players have a deal on coronavirus protections just in time for he opening of training camp this week for all 32 teams.
How does the league plan to keep everyone safe in a contact sport like football? CNN’s Doctor Sanjay Gupta spoke with NFL Chief Medical Officer Allen Sills at the Atlanta Falcons soon-to-be training facility.
Gupta: “There’s a real schism. There are some people who say, ‘here’s what you do, here’s the plan.’ And there’s other people who say, ‘it’s absolutely ludicrous to even try this. The country is in the middle of a pandemic. Football’s great but you gotta sit this season out.'”
Sills: “I think people are trying to be really thoughtful about this. And I think people do look at risk and risk mitigation in different ways. But I feel like it’s the right thing to do to try to learn to live with this virus. Can we find ways to do that safely? You know, that’s our challenge.”
The country’s last NFL game was on Feb. 2, when the Chiefs beat the 49ers to win Superbowl 54. Two days earlier, the United States had declared a public health emergency because of the coronavirus.
Gupta: “Since then, millions of people have become infected, more than 140,000 have died and now the NFL wants to do the seemingly impossible: bring back some sense of normalcy to one of the largest sports leagues in the country.”
Some indoor changes will look familiar: lots of masks, near-constant sanitizing, and physical distancing in treatment rooms, weight rooms, meal times, and on the field.
Sills: “There are actually three regulation-size football fields here side-by-side so the first thing that jumps to your mind is ‘how we can do physical distancing here, right?’ So as players start strength and conditioning activities, for example, you know, you’re talking about each individual or each very small group having a lot of space to work with.”
Players will have new, space age looking technology if they want it.
Sills: “A number of our players have worn eye shields over the past years for protection or for performance reasons. So it’s basically an extension of that device, but it’s a multi layer device so that you’ve got ventilation holes, and you’ve got some filters in it.”
Players will also be given proximity tracking devices that beep or flash when players or staff get too close to one another. Data is also being collected, making contract tracing easier if someone does become infected.
The NFL says players will still live in their own homes, will still be with their own families, and will still travel with their teams for games.
Sills: “Players, coaches, staff, if they’re around each other each day, they’re going to share risk. They also share responsibility to each other, which means that they’re each making good choices when they’re away from the facility.”
Rich McKay is the President and CEO of the Atlanta Falcons.
Gupta: “How are the players doing? Are they worried? Is there a way to describe the mood?”
McKay: “I would say, yeah sure, they have the same anxiousness that you would have. They’re relying on us and they’re relying on the union to make sure that all the protocols we do, everything that we can is done at the highest level that we can.”
Demaurice Smith is the executive director of the NFLPA, the union representing players on the field this season.
Smith: “Everything that we do is going to have an impact on families at home, and it’s going to have an impact on first responders, community service, and other people in in the community and to believe otherwise is sheer fantasy.”
There have been some pretty tense negotiations between the union and the league about play, and Smith says that about 70% of NFL players could be considered vulnerable themselves or at increased risk.
Smith: “What we’ve done is tracked the CDC risk guidelines. Made decisions on which ones put our players at high risk and players can rely on those risk factors to make decisions about whether they’re gonna play or not.”
Gupta: “I was actually surprised by that, because you think of athletes just to be superhuman, you know, sort of perfectly healthy people, but there are these various conditions. How does that play into your thinking?”
Sills: “We still do not know a lot of the basics about this disease and where it’s going to be headed. And I think it hearkens back again to those conversations that each individual has to have and they have to, in their mind, make what’s the best decision for themselves.”
The NFL and the union have agrees to test every player daily for the first two weeks of training camp, eventually moving to an every-other-day schedule once the team reaches a 5% positivity rate and maintains that.
Gupta: “Does that make sense to you? Because there is an incredible shortage of testing right now. We did some rough math and you know, if you look at the testing plan here, it’s about, just for the players, about 18,000 tests per week, I mean, how could that not have an impact on the availability of more widespread general testing?”
Sills: “Clearly there are procedural issues with that around the country. So, we went with a company that was outside of market that would have a national platform. They actually opened up some laboratory capabilities that weren’t being used just for this project. And also set up again, supply and distribution and testing reporting that’s completely separate from any healthcare work that they do. And that company has given us their assurance that any work that they do for healthcare applications, meaning for hospitals, for emergency rooms, things of that nature, that’s a whole separate business for them that will remain their number one priority.”
Gupta: “Did you ever think, ‘look, maybe this season’s gonna be a wash? We’ll get back to it next year. But this isn’t essential. As much as I love football, this isn’t essential compared to the essential things that are needed in the country.'”
McKay: “Yeah, I would say that probably those thoughts went through your mind three months ago. I think as we move forward, and we saw that, hey, basketball is going to do this. Baseball is going to do this. Soccer is gonna do this. We get to go last, we can learn from them. We can do this and in really safe way, we think, and so I think for us, we got the message that people wanted football. That’s not the reason to play, that people want it, but if we can do it in a way that is as safe as it possibly can be, then we should and we will. And that’s what we’re going to do.”