NFL agrees to eliminate preseason, reaches deal with union on coronavirus testing

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The NFL on Monday agreed with its players’ union on a novel-coronavirus-testing program for players while offering to eliminate the preseason as the union has sought. The moves to resolve the key remaining issues between the two sides came as rookies for the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans reported to their training camps.

The league’s concessions on the preseason and daily testing of players, at least at the outset of training camps, increased the likelihood that all teams’ camps will open fully by July 28 as scheduled. The NFL previously had cut the preseason from four games per team to two games per team and was planning for testing every other day. But the NFL Players Association had been adamant about daily testing for players and no preseason at all.

The NFL’s offer Monday of zero preseason games was accompanied by other player-friendly provisions. The acclimation period for veteran players arriving at training camps was increased from seven days to 18 days before they must start practicing, and any player is allowed to opt out of playing this season, according to a person familiar with the deliberations.

Under the testing agreement, players will be tested daily for the first two weeks of training camp. Daily testing will continue as long as the rate of positive tests of players, coaches and other team staffers is above 5%. If the rate falls below 5%, players will be tested every other day. The league expects to receive test results within 24 hours.

“I think that this latest agreement with testing protocols between the league and the Players Association reflects a continuation of the collaborative work that we’ve been doing,” said Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer. “We’ve had other protocols around treatment for new positive cases, around facilities, around travel, around education, around screening. So we’ve continued this work and it’s, again, reflecting a number of months of work that really began back in March.”

The NFLPA said in a written statement: “Our union has been pushing for the strongest testing, tracing and treatment protocols to keep our players safe. The testing protocols we agreed to are one critical factor that will help us return to work safely and gives us the best chance to play and finish the season.”

Sills also said the league plans to use tracking devices to trace people’s contact as part of its measures to attempt to limit spread of the virus within team facilities.

The arrivals Monday of the rookies for the Chiefs and the Texans, the two teams scheduled to meet in the NFL’s season-opening game Sept. 10 in Kansas City, Mo., amounted to a first step by the league toward opening teams’ training camps on time. Rookies for other teams are scheduled to report to their camps Tuesday, though some teams were postponing those arrivals.

The Texans said through a spokesperson that their rookies were undergoing coronavirus testing Monday by the firm BioReference Laboratories at an on-site testing facility outside the team’s stadium in Houston. The rookies had no other team-related activities planned for Monday, according to the spokesperson.

Many players, including star quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, had taken to social media Sunday to question the league’s approach to opening training camps amid the pandemic.

The league and the union have agreed to all the necessary health protocols and, with the league’s latest offer Monday, appear close to resolving all the remaining noneconomic issues such as the structure of teams’ training camps and the opt-out rules. The major issue left for the two sides to resolve is economic: how to deal with a potential drop in revenue this season and what such a decrease would mean to the 2021 salary cap.

It was not immediately clear whether the league’s new offer for no preseason games and a longer acclimation period for veteran players was tied to specific economic provisions. The two sides have differed sharply to this point on how to keep a significant decrease in revenue this year from causing next year’s cap to plummet.

Sills confirmed that he had approved all 32 teams’ Infectious Disease Emergency Response (IDER) plans. The NFLPA’s ratification is pending for many teams’ plans.

“Everything that we’re doing is centered on the concept of risk mitigation,” Sills said in a conference call with reporters. “We know that we can’t eliminate risk. But we’re trying to mitigate it as much as possible for everyone. . . . I think that these protocols are very much living and breathing documents, which means that they will change.”

The NFL previously sent treatment protocols to teams for dealing with positive coronavirus tests. Sills declined to specify how many positive tests would dictate shutting down a team or the league, saying those issues must be discussed with the union and public health authorities. A player will be required to have two negative tests 72 hours apart after reporting to training camp before being permitted to enter a team’s facility.

Team owners spoke by video conference Monday afternoon. It was their second remote meeting since Friday as the league tries to keep training camps and the season on schedule. For most teams, that means rookies reporting Tuesday, quarterbacks and injured players reporting Thursday, and all other players reporting July 28. Individual teams can adjust reporting dates later but not earlier. Team doctors told NFLPA representatives Thursday they believe camps can be opened safely even in coronavirus “hot spot” cities.

Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay told the “Helliepod” podcast before the deal on testing was announced that he suspected a delay remained possible.

“Usually when you get about a week out—and right now that’s exactly where we’re at—you start to get revved up, get excited . . . when you’re getting ready to kick off training camp and the preseason,” McVay said. “And there’s something about this time that you know the amount of things that have to take place for that to logistically get off and get going—something about it tells me maybe there’s a chance that things get moved back.”

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