Don’t pat the NFL on the back for its COVID-19 response just yet — and not because it would violate social distancing protocol.
The novel coronavirus led to the cancellation of MLB, NBA and NHL games. It erased March Madness, NCAA spring sports and Big Ten and Pac-12 football. It wreaked havoc on the calendars for golf, tennis, soccer and almost every other sport. Almost!
Because the NFL has fought back, making only minor concessions, every step of the way.
Early on when people said conducting free agency would be impossible? The NFL proceeded. Then when people argued for postponing the draft? The NFL went virtual, produced a ratings bonanza and humanized its big shots. Then, when people mocked the delusion of training camp starting on time? The NFL implemented daily testing and pulled that off, too.
Now comes the greatest challenge for the brains behind a $25 billion business: Can they, and how do they, play an actual season?
“It will not be easy, and it will be different,” commissioner Roger Goodell said, “but we are prepared.”
The biggest scare happened Aug. 22-23, when a New Jersey laboratory returned 77 positive test results impacting 11 teams. It was determined all were false-positives due to a processing error, but thoughts rooted in fear, panic and shame surfaced in the hours when it seemed an outbreak might be brewing similar to the one that spread through the Miami Marlins to start the MLB season.
One high-ranking team executive told The Post that he asked himself then: “Is one of us the Marlins?”
No. Not yet, anyway.
“If you had asked me in March or April, I would have had serious doubts,” Giants co-owner John Mara said, “but given the way the protocols have worked so far and the very low rate of positive tests, I think we have a good chance of playing a full season.”
From Aug. 12 through Sept. 5, the NFL administered more than 161,000 COVID-19 tests to players, coaches and other team staff and found 24 new cases. The approximately 2,700 players in the league during camp account for five of those positives on 64,058 total tests.
The overall positivity rate dropped from 1.7 percent during intake testing at the start of camp to 0.1 percent within a month.
“We have a relentless opponent here, which is this virus, and we know that there can be new cases that occur no matter how diligent we are with all of our protocols and our personnel,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills said. “So we just have to remain very vigilant and realize that we’re still very early on, but we’re encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.”
It’s the unseen — a team flying to a new city, staying in an unfamiliar hotel and playing a tackle football game — that remains a cause for concern.
It is recommended teams charter two airplanes instead of one and fly into private airports for road games. Travel hotel staff must clean elevator buttons, handrails and other high-touch surfaces at least three times per day with hospital-grade disinfectants. Postgame meals must be packaged using a mask and gloves in takeout form and distributed upon the players exiting the stadium.
This is the NFL in 2020: Planning every minuscule detail, but simultaneously knowing something will slip through the cracks. Contingency plans are in the works, but what chance is there that all 256 regular-season games through the Super Bowl will be played on time?
“That’s unlikely,” said Dr. David Hirschwerk, an infectious diseases expert at Northwell Health in New York. “Based upon what we’ve seen in MLB, the number of teams, the fact that there is travel and close contact, it would be surprising if there were no interruptions.”
While moving the whole league to one or two cities was unrealistic because of the weekly nature of a football schedule, the alternative suggestion of maintaining 32 different “market bubbles” — team personnel jointly living in isolated headquarters — was bypassed for a “virtual football bubble” in which everyone inside shares risk and responsibility.
“It was too much to ask these guys not to see their families for five months,” a second high-ranking team executive said.
Given that players and coaches are allowed to return to individual homes each day, the amount of confirmed cases is surprisingly low. From July 26 through Sept. 3 — spanning training camp — 118 players were placed on the COVID-19 restricted list during camp, but only one had not been activated by the end of August. Seventy-one players opted out of the season voluntarily or categorized as high-risk.
Jets quarterback Sam Darnold admits there was a time this offseason he was uncertain the process would run so smoothly. But he knew this for sure: Players wanted to play, so he is not surprised by strict adherence to the protocols.
“No one really knows much about the virus and how it can spread, so I wasn’t sure about how serious it would be or the long-term effects of anything,” Darnold said. “Around the league, it’s about the guys sustaining it throughout the entire season.
“That’s going to be the challenge, and I think we’re up for it. We can stay disciplined in terms of doing things outside of the building, outside of where we live, to be able to continue to have negative tests.”
Scrapping preseason games took away the trial run. Even if the regular season is a success, Saints coach Sean Payton’s suggestion of creating a bubble for the playoffs warrants consideration.
“I think they’ve been extremely lucky without an NBA-style bubble and with the honor system,” said Dr. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist at Rutgers. “Now you are talking about teams from all over the country getting together in a stadium and falling all over each other. You’ve increased the number of variables. That just multiplies the potential.”
Here’s the nightmare: One player on one team tests negative all week, including a rapid-result test (about 70-80 percent reliable) on the morning of kickoff, plays 70 snaps in a road game, travels home with teammates and tests positive the next day.
“The scenario will almost certainly happen and the league will have to respond to that by isolating those individuals and figuring out how to deal with contacts. That will be challenging,” Hirschwerk said. “If you do enough of those slightly less-sensitive tests, you are going to have false-negative tests come in.”
So, the NFL is digging in on how close to kickoff to test players and by what method. The more accurate PCR tests conducted by nasal swab take up to 24 hours to read. Procedures could change from one week to the next based on evolving technologies.
Sills, the chief medical officer, said the league is prepared to hold out star players with positive tests or even displayed symptoms. Some teams are responding with a plan to isolate one quarterback from the rest in case COVID-19 infiltrates the meeting room.
“I think that’s something that we should consider,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “It’ll be interesting to see how different teams handle that through the league.”
The silver lining to the false-positive scare was teams fire-drilled their contact-tracing protocol, isolating anyone who was within 6 feet of a person who tested positive for more than 10 minutes during the previous 48 hours.
Oakley created an in-game face shield for players, but it is not mandated. Neck gaiters could be worn under a helmet to cover the nose and mouth, but they test among the least protective safety options in research studies.
“How many times have you seen guys, even with their gloves on, reach out to wipe sweat or spit off their face? Who have they just touched and who just touched the ball?” Raymond said. “The only thing that might be [more dangerous] is sex work. I can’t think of anything else with more physical contact. It’s legal in Germany, but they banned it during the pandemic.”
As one of the most influential team owners, Mara had a message for his peers at a meeting in August: Be reasonable.
“We have to accept the fact that this is an unusual year,” Mara said. “It’s not necessarily going to be competitively fair 100 percent of the time.”
Because the league is deferring to state and local governments to determine if it is safe for fans to attend games, the Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs are among a handful of teams who will welcome limited capacity crowds at the start. Most teams have ruled out fans through September or longer.
A loop of prerecorded crowd noise specific to each stadium will fill the silence. It will be played at 70 decibels — equivalent to the hum of a vacuum cleaner — starting at kickoff.
About 38 percent of league revenue comes from tickets, parking, concessions and merchandise sales, according to Forbes.com. Teams can make up some losses by selling ad space on tarps covering premium seats, but the salary cap still could drop for 2021. Television ratings for sports in a pandemic haven’t soared like expected, but the NFL is its own animal.
“The idea for them is to get through this season and start planning for the next one or two,” said Charles Grantham, director of the Center for Sport Management at Seton Hall. “How much of the salary cap can be manipulated? Owners can absorb that loss over a period of time. Players who have short careers will not entertain the best market to be free [agents].”
If not every game is played, winning percentage could determine playoff participants, leaving out a team with more victories than one that sneaks in. A competition committee of former players, coaches and executives was established to review issues fans eventually will be complaining about again.
“The appetite for football is so great,” Grantham said. “Fans are hungry to see the game again: Can we enjoy it from afar? I think the enjoyability of the games will certainly be satisfactory.”
Just reaching this launching point is cause for celebration: Try a Zoom high-five.
“The big thing for us is not to get comfortable,” Goodell said. “The protocols are working, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.”