NFL training camps are supposed to start up at the end of this month. But there are no concrete plans in place as of yet for how the league will keep players safe when they do report and exactly how long these players will have to ramp up to full speed. The NFL has officially canceled one preseason game and all reports suggest the most preseason games that will take place is two.
The NFL Players Association does not want that. After a call with players under their umbrella on Friday, the NFLPA sent a letter to the NFL requesting they cancel all preseason games. In the letter, they stated the NFL could provide no medical reasons to hold the games and declined to get into the specifics of how preseason games would allow teams to practice coronavirus safety measures. After that letter was sent, NFLPA President J.C. Tretter penned his own letter condemning the NFL for not taking COVID-19 seriously and believing the best way things should be done is how they're always done in these unprecedented circumstances:
"Like many other industries, football’s resistance to change is based on the belief that the best way to run things is the way we’ve always run things. That pervasive thought process will stop this season in its tracks. Since March, we have had hours of return to work meetings, reviewed research and developed detailed protocols -- all of which will be wasted if the NFL refuses to think and act differently when it comes to getting through a full season. Players don’t just want to return to work; we want to stay at work."
"As a preventative measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFLPA and NFL formed a Joint Committee of doctors, trainers and strength coaches to develop protocols designed to bring players up to full speed in a healthy way when they return. The NFL initially accepted and implemented the Joint Committee’s suggestions, including items like no joint practices and no fans at training camp. However, the NFL was unwilling to follow the Joint Committee's recommendation of a 48-day training camp schedule. Despite these experts’ assessment that teams face a serious risk of player-injury spikes this year (based on past NFL data and recent findings from sports leagues that have already returned to play this year), the NFL is unwilling to prioritize player safety and believes that the virus will bend to football."
That last line especially is harsh, but completely unsurprising. If any one league were to believe it was bigger than the virus, the NFL would be the most likely culprit.
It's not wrong to say preseason games are important for roster development. There are a lot of good players in the league who started out as lower draft picks and undrafted free agents, having to make a name for themselves by busting it in preseason. But as Tretter notes, medically speaking, there's nothing to suggest that holding these games will improve a player's readiness for Week 1. As always, it will probably come down to money. Owners stand to lose a lot with no stadiums at full capacity in 2020, although it does seem like many are planning to have at least some fans in attendance. They'll want every extra dollar they can find, and preseason games do make some money.
This is just the beginning of what will be a battle between the Players Association and the league between now and the end of July. This was the only response in the hours after Tretter published his letter.
Doesn't seem like the parties are off to a great start. The next three weeks will be quite telling in regards to the NFL's attitude towards COVID-19 and how it will impact the season.