NFL contingency plans include playing in empty or half-full stadiums

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While still publicly committed to kicking off its 2020 season in September to packed stadiums, the NFL has been planning for contingencies that include a potentially shortened schedule and holding games in empty or partially filled stadiums, two people familiar with the league’s planning said Wednesday.

That revelation came on the same day the notion of the cautious return of professional sports gained a significant scientific endorsement – to go along with the more emphatic one already coming from the White House. And it underscored how the nation’s sports leagues, including the NFL, can still only see the outline of a path forward, with nobody ready to say when or how games can resume.

“The NFL is planning for everything from playing without fans to playing in full stadiums,” said one of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details of the league’s planning had not been made public. “We know there will be a push from the [federal] government to open things up.”

Wednesday saw the nation’s top infectious disease scientist give a public—but highly contingent—blessing to the return of sports. In an interview on Snapchat, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, outlined a plan that could allow the NBA, NHL and MLB to resume play this summer. It would involve playing in empty stadiums, with players and other essential personnel kept in a protective “bubble” involving frequent testing and self-isolation.

“There’s a way of doing that,” said Fauci, who has become the most well-known face of the U.S. scientific community’s battle against the virus. “Nobody comes to the stadium. Put [players and other personnel] in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled [and] have them tested like every week, and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out. . . . If you could get on television, Major League Baseball, to start July 4 [even if] nobody comes to the stadium—you just, you do it.”

Fauci’s comments came on the same day President Donald Trump—who on several occasions has made his clear his preference for sports to return as soon as possible—held a second conference call in two weeks with the commissioners of the country’s major sports leagues. Several team owners, including Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, were expected to be on the call as well.

Until Wednesday’s revelations, the NFL had appeared content to stick to its public stance of an undisturbed 2020 season, while quietly considering other scenarios and allowing the other leagues—with seasons currently on hiatus—to show the way forward. But now, even the NFL’s deliberations on readying for the possibility of a disruption to its schedule are coming into view.

The person familiar with the NFL’s planning made the point that “the other leagues have to go first,” referring to MLB, the NBA and the NHL. The league could have to deal with ongoing lockdowns or stay-at-home orders in some states—with some local government officials already warning that a too-soon return of sports could have catastrophic ramifications.

But the NFL hopes, the person said, that widespread testing for the virus will be available by the fall for players and perhaps fans, and suspects that public health advisories will be issued that will, for example, urge older and other at-risk fans to remain at home.

The NFL’s schedule for the 2020 regular season is expected to be released around May 9 and will account for the possibility of games being lost by a delayed start.

“The schedule is being done in such a way that builds in that flexibility,” the person said.

The NFL declined to comment Wednesday on specific contingency plans but said in a written statement:

“As we have said, we are committed to protecting the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and communities. We look forward to the 2020 NFL season, and our guidelines and decisions will be guided by the latest advice from medical and public health officials, as well as current and future government regulations. We will continue to plan for the season and will be prepared to adjust as necessary, just as we have done with free agency, the draft, and now the offseason program.”

Unlike the NFL, the other major U.S. leagues were already in various stages of exploring their most feasible paths to resumption, with all of it predicated upon continued advancements in testing for coronavirus and in the fight against its spread.

MLB, which was in the middle of spring training and two weeks shy of its opening day when play was halted, has discussed a plan to stage games in the Phoenix area, using the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field and spring training complexes. On Wednesday, Arizona Doug Ducey, a Republican, gave his approval to the plan, as long as circumstances allow it.

“From our perspective, we don’t have a plan—we have lots of ideas,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told Fox Business on Tuesday. “What ideas come to fruition depends on what the restrictions [regarding travel and mass gatherings] are, what the public health situation is. But we are intent on the idea of making baseball a part of the economic recovery and sort of a milestone on the return to normalcy.”

The NBA, which was roughly 65 games into its 82-game season when play stopped, has explored a similar plan using multiple arenas and practice facilities in Las Vegas. The NBA was scheduled to have its pre-draft combine and lottery drawing in May, its draft in June, its free agency period beginning July 1, and its Las Vegas Summer League in mid-July. All those events are now up in the air pending the league’s decision to resume or cancel the 2019-20 season.

Any efforts to restart sports leagues would require a degree of buy-in from players—especially those with families—who by necessity would have to live in strict isolation, traveling only from their hotels to the stadiums or arenas and submitting to frequent testing. Allowing immediate family members into the bubble would greatly increase the number of people to account for and the number of regular tests required.

Three-time American League MVP Player Mike Trout, whose wife is due to give birth this summer, raised some of those issues in an interview Wednesday with NBCSN.

“I obviously want to play as fast as we can,” Trout said. “But [being self-isolated] would be difficult for some guys. What are you going to do with family members? My wife is pregnant. What am I going to do if she goes into labor. Am I going to have to go into quarantine for two weeks after I come back? Because, obviously, I can’t miss the birth of our first child.

“So there’s a lot of red flags, a lot of questions. Obviously we’d have to agree as players. But I think the mentality is, we want to get back as soon as we can. But obviously it’s got to be realistic. We can’t just be sitting in a hotel room, just going from the field to the hotel room and not being able to do anything. I think that’s pretty crazy.”

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