As the NFL proceeds with its training camp routines pointing toward the launch of the 2020 season Sept. 10, everyone is casting a cautionary eye on what is going on at each of the 32 team sites.
Given what baseball has been through, how can you not be nervous that your favorite NFL team might get hit with an outbreak of coronavirus? Can we expect each team to handle its business properly? Or are we going to have a case of “Lou Williams Syndrome” where individual players or small groups decide it’s proper to go to a club and risk getting infected?
The logical response is to bubble up. Isolate every team from the outside world and prepare responsibly. It worked for the NBA and NHL so far, right? And with baseball doing its thing, we know how well that’s turned out.
Unfortunately, football’s a little different from basketball or hockey. Right now, we’re talking 80 players per team. There’s no way to create a singular environment for the entire league. Logistically, it’s not feasible.
But what about regional bubbles? You’re still going to be traveling once the season starts. To have four eight-team bubbles for a month or even the season, isn’t going to work.
Essentially, the NFL is asking its teams to create their own bubble. The Saints have rented out a hotel. So have the Giants. Other teams are doing likewise. However, habitation is not mandatory. If a player wants to commute from home, he can. A lot of players have wives and children. To isolate themselves from their families for an undetermined amount of time might be detrimental to their mental health.
The NHL will let families into the hubs in Edmonton and Toronto before the conference finals so there’s a reward of sorts for the teams that are still playing into next month. The NBA will do something similar in its Florida bubble for its remaining teams in September.
Normally, NFL teams would have held training camp in isolation. Yes, fans could come watch, but the players and coaches would have their own segregated area, be it a hotel or a college campus. But the fact is there would be a buffer from the outside world, save for those players who risked breaking curfew and getting fined by going out for the evening to blow off some steam.
However, this year’s training camp gives new meaning to the word “Isolation.” Everyone is being closely monitored. Access to team facilities are even more tightly controlled than normal. Media do not get to interact face-to-face with anyone. Everything is done on a virtual basis.
The NFL gave the players the chance to opt out of playing this year. Of the approximately 1,700 players who will make opening day rosters next month, 66 took the league up on its offer and decided to sit out the 2020 season.
I would have liked to have seen the NFL make hotel stays mandatory for the players, at least until the week of the start of the regular season, if not for the entire year. But like everything, it would have had to have been collectively bargained and there were enough things the league and its players had to negotiate just to get to this point.
Maybe isolating players for five months isn’t realistic. The NBA and NHL bubble are intact for three-plus months and at the end, only two teams in each league will still be inside. Then again, workers spend months on oil derricks and those serving in the military are away from home for months, if not years at a time. And given the salaries NFL players earn and the fact they wouldn’t be living in tents or Quonset huts, being put up in a luxury hotel for a few months in order to stay safe may not be that great a sacrifice.
So we have to hope the players are either smart enough or scared straight enough not to push the envelope, risk getting infected and spread the virus to everyone in their locker room and training facility. That’s where leadership comes in. Those who have the voice to command the room must make sure they’re heard and the message gets sent clearly to everyone.
Each team has captains, guys the others look up to. They, not the coaches, need to police their rosters. That means being responsible and acting businesslike every single day. Remember, it only takes one person testing positive to launch an outbreak.
We’ve all seen the Smokey the Bear commercials where he says: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” Perhaps the NFL should create its own Public Service Announcements that have Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, J.J. Watt and others that say: “Only YOU can prevent COVID-19.”
Of course, that would mean those guys and all the other NFL players practice what they preach. Will they? Let’s hope so. A lot is riding on their responsible behavior. Or lack of it.