NFL plans to use tech, lessons from baseball to forge ahead

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The National Football League, a little over a month from the start of its 2020 season, has a plan to avoid the kind of coronavirus-driven game cancellations that have plagued the start of Major League Baseball.

The NFL’s approach is to rely on contact tracing to stem the spread of the virus, using devices that can be worn on the wrist or even sewn into jerseys.

Unlike the National Basketball Association, which is successfully playing in a single-site “bubble” environment, the NFL plans to play at stadiums around the country as usual. And baseball’s struggles to keep its season on course show how quickly the virus that has killed more than 150,000 Americans can derail a sport when players, coaches and staff aren’t sequestered from the world.

After just one weekend of play, baseball saw 20 members of the Miami Marlins organization test positive, resulting in more than a week of the team’s scheduled games being postponed. The St. Louis Cardinals this week canceled a 4-game series after seven players and six staff members tested positive.

Football itself has a growing list of people with COVID-19—including coach Doug Pederson, who led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl win—and some players have opted out of the season.

One advantage the NFL has is timing. With its season following the resumptions of baseball, basketball and hockey, the league can look to its sporting contemporaries for guidance on what does and doesn’t work. And while the NFL hasn’t opted to play in a contained environment, the league is trying to create a virtual bubble through the wearable devices, supplied by German company Kinexon Sports & Media GmbH.

“We are definitely looking and learning, but for sure we’re looking at what the other leagues are doing and learning from it,” said Michelle McKenna, the NFL’s chief information officer.

Identify and isolate rather than eradicate is the league’s plan, according to its chief medical officer, Allen Sills.

“We’ve said all along we do expect to have new positive cases,” Sills said. “So what’s really incumbent is to identify those cases as quickly as we can and get them away from the team environment as quickly as we can.”

The devices track contacts between players, coaches and staff—as long as the other person is also wearing the Kinexon SafeTag technology—as well as providing audio and visual alerts to enforce proper social-distancing protocols. Get too close to a fellow wearer or try to enter an area of the facility for which you aren’t authorized and the tracker will beep or light up.

Still, the high-tech contact-tracing system only provides support within league facilities, where everyone is mandated to wear the technology.

“The adherence to proper preventative measures when they’re away from team facilities, it’s crucial to the success of our season,” Sills said. “We can do the best things at our own facilities, but if they don’t uphold the protocols away from there, it won’t make a difference.”

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