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NFL Planning Full Season With Full Stadiums -- Is It Optimism Or Arrogance?

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- For anyone who tuned in or followed updates from the White House coronavirus briefing, Tuesday marked the most sobering day in the United States. President Donald Trump stood in front of a graph that displayed a best-case scenario where somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die from the virus.

A few hours earlier, in a matter far less concerning, NFL executive vice president Jeff Pash carried on a message that America's largest sports league has been consistently delivering for weeks: Business in the NFL will continue as usual.

"All of our discussion, all of our focus, has been on a normal traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and full set of playoffs," Pash told reporters. "That's our focus."

On the one hand, exerting optimism in the face of a national crisis can be considered admirable.

Yet for a multi-billion dollar business, exercising prudence should be a mandate.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump stands in front of a chart during a COVID-19 briefing at The White House on March 31, 2020. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Thus far, America has taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously for roughly a month. Businesses have shut down, workers have shifted from offices to their home kitchens, people have stayed home, sports arenas went dark, and the whole country has effectively hit pause on any activity deemed non-essential.

Except for the NFL. Despite the travel limitations and hurdles for players to clear in order to get physical examinations, free agency kicked off as scheduled on March 18. With no NHL and NBA games, and with no MLB spring training to worry about, the NFL was the only game in town. The resulting coverage in sports media was, naturally, wall-to-wall.

After that initial wave of free agency fizzled, the NFL took the bold stance of insisting that the draft, scheduled for April 23-25, would go on as scheduled, no matter what. Commissioner Roger Goodell doubled down on the declaration by threatening any coach, general manager or any other team employee with punishment if a word of dissent was uttered publicly to the press.

"The [chief executive committee] was also clear, and I share the Committee's view, that public discussion of issues relating to the Draft serves no useful purpose and is grounds for disciplinary action," Goodell wrote in a memo to teams.

Naturally, opinions on whether the draft should take place at all, considering the state of the country, are varied. It's valid to believe that three days of a live NFL draft will serve to properly distract millions of fans from the harsh realities of the world at this moment in time. At the same time, nothing seems less important than a football draft.

The point is that there is room for contrasting views on the matter. Just not among those who draw an NFL paycheck. The draft is happening, the draft is good, get on board.

Even still, the draft can largely be a rare non-contact football event. Teams can't meet prospects in person, but teams can also get creative and resourceful with technology. Broadcast networks can't load up a studio with dozens of experts, and there may be fewer creative minds in the edit bays at ESPN and NFL Network to compile all of those highlight packages for every player, but again, technology can help buoy the broadcasts. The draft can happen without spreading the deadly disease.

But football in the fall? Stating at the end of March that football will go on as scheduled in September requires the placement of several carts before several horses.

And contrasting that brash confidence with the news from the rest of the country -- New York City building field hospitals in Central Park (a quick 10-minute cab ride from NFL headquarters), the imminent explosion of cases in Florida, doctors and nurses contracting the virus themselves, the lack of personal protective equipment for medical professionals nationwide, the personal stories of families not being allowed to be with their loved ones at death and being unable to hold traditional funeral services -- it's just difficult for the average informed human being to square.

Certainly, unquestionably, everyone would love to have the NFL in action in the fall. At a time when it's unsettling to encounter even one stranger in an open space, the foreign idea of having 75,000 strangers packed into a stadium without a worry in the world is a rare pleasant thought to hold. It's nice to have something to hope for, to look forward to, a light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.

Is it realistic though? And what good does it do to cement anything right now?

Had these proclamations taken place in a vacuum, then perhaps the corporate juggernaut could be given some leeway, some benefit of the doubt, that the messaging was delivered for altruistic reasons. But given all that we know about the NFL and the folks in charge of the league, it truly stretches the bounds of credulity to believe their position serves anything outside of their own interests.

In that respect, it's likewise challenging to interpret the NFL's public stance as anything but arrogance. Sure, the NBA and the NHL and MLB have all shut down with no return in sight, but that won't affect us. It cannot affect us. We are the NFL. We are exclusively exempt from facing the realities of this crisis.

To be fair, there's no reason on March 31 to cancel events in September. Obviously. Doing so could even lead to a dampening of national spirits, such as they are. That's understandable.

But the reality of the matter is going to hit America -- and the NFL -- in the coming days and weeks.

"What we are going to see, and that's why we have to brace ourselves, in the next several days to a week or so, we're going to continue to see things go up," Dr. Anthony Fauci told the nation on Tuesday, while urging Americans to continue their efforts to quarantine. "We cannot be discouraged by that because the mitigation is actually working and will work."

Dr. Fauci was asked if Americans should prepare to see the number of deaths to jump quickly from roughly 4,000 to more than 100,000.

"The answer is yes," he said. "As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it. Is it going to be that much? I hope not. And I think the more we push on the mitigation, the less likelihood it would be that number. But as being realistic, we need to prepare ourselves that that is a possibility that that's what we will see."

Dr. Facui added: "It will be difficult. I mean, no one is denying the fact that we are going through a very, very difficult time right now. I mean, we're seeing what's happening in New York, that is really, really tough. And if you extrapolate that to the nation, that will be really tough. But that's what it is, and we're going to have to be prepared for that."

No one is denying that we are going through a very difficult time right now. The NFL is merely carrying on as though we are not.

By now, seemingly most everyone has accepted that the significance of this virus cannot be downplayed. We've learned that it's not a crisis affecting foreign nations and leaving us unscathed, and we've learned that the geography of our birthplaces will not keep us safe. Even the president, an ever-self-assured businessman who downplayed coronavirus' potential impact and called it a hoax a mere 33 days ago, has completely changed his messaging on the matter.

"This could be a hell of a bad two weeks," Trump said Tuesday. "This is gonna be a very bad two -- or maybe even three -- weeks. This is going to be three weeks like we haven't seen before."

Meanwhile, the NFL is looking ahead: "[A full season] is our expectation. Am I certain of that? I'm not certain I'll be here tomorrow. But I'm planning on it, and in the same way, we're planning on having a full season. ... All of our discussions, all of our focus, has been on a normal, traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and a full set of playoffs. That's our focus."

What that will look like in the coming weeks and months, however, is anything but normal. The draft will resemble nothing like its made-for-TV production that has served as a ratings monster for decades. The league then plans to release the 2020 schedule in early May. Then, though, OTAs will be canceled, as will minicamps. Even if parts of society start to reopen in early June, it won't be the right time to start loading up locker rooms with 90 players per team, plus coaches, trainers, and other staff. (Check the setback for the return of the Chinese Basketball Association for evidence of that.)

At that point, a late-July starting point for training camps could be in doubt. There's truthfully no way that anybody could know one way or another right now. But from there, a shortened preseason will have to be considered if the goal remains starting the season on Sept. 10.

Yet that's only what would be necessary to have the players on the field. And it's also a best-case scenario. One single positive case of COVID-19 for any player or coach during that time would swiftly and immediately shut the whole endeavor down.

Then there is the matter of playing "in front of fans, in our regular stadiums." That, too, simply cannot be known at this point in time. There's no blueprint for a return to social gatherings, so to assert in late March that tens of thousands of fans will be in attendance for NFL football games in just six short months requires a certain degree of unbridled optimism or a certain degree of intentional ignorance.

There's also this matter: Dr. Fauci said a second outbreak of the disease is likely to happen in the fall.

If that does happen, it won't be as devastating as our current situation, but it will nevertheless require steps to be taken to ensure that outcome.

For now, though, the NFL is walking a fine line. There is something to be said about giving fans something positive to look forward to, just as there is something quite different to be said about dismissing and downplaying the potential impact of a global pandemic and a national crisis on a sports league.

In terms of gut-punching news out of Washington, Tuesday was the worst day yet. And it's going to get worse -- much worse -- over the course of the next month. How we all get through that month will determine what happens in the next month, and the same for the month after that, and again for the month after that. It's an unprecedented situation. Thus, it's one that cannot be accurately predicted.

That is, it cannot be predicted by anyone outside of the NFL offices. The draft is happening, football games are happening, stadiums will be filled, sponsors will pay big bucks, everyone will make money, everyone will be happy. Get on board.

Perhaps everything will work out. Hopefully everything will work out. But at the very least, at this precarious time in national history -- a "very, very difficult" and "really, really tough" situation, in Dr. Fauci's words -- the tone that the NFL is choosing to strike feels really, really misguided and very, very wrong.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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