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With five months until the season is scheduled to begin, the NFL is planning to start the regular season on time in September and play a full 16-game schedule — including international games — in front of fans in 2020, league officials said in a conference call Tuesday.
The new coronavirus pandemic has shut down the NBA and NHL, delayed Opening Day for Major League Baseball and forced the NFL to plan on virtual workouts for their offseason program and a drastically reconfigured draft that will have teams, players and Commissioner Roger Goodell connected virtually.
But Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president, general counsel, said the league’s medical executives, who are consulting with the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, have been shown models of the course of the pandemic in other countries and how different interventions have been effective. The NFL has the luxury of time to alter the season if projections change. But the message from the NFL was clear Tuesday: The information the league has right now has led it to focus on planning to start the season as scheduled. The schedule of games will likely be released on or around May 9.
In an hour-long conference call with team owners earlier on Tuesday, there was no discussion about shortening the season or changing the structure of the season, Pash said, although Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, told reporters the league is also “looking at all options” and “constantly contingency planning.”
“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 said. “That’s our focus.”
Earlier, Pash said: “That’s 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.”
Almost everything else about the league has changed dramatically, though. Team facilities are closed. Free-agent and draft visits are taking place virtually. And while the offseason program has not officially been canceled, it has been suspended indefinitely and the league is considering options for how teams can have virtual workouts and classrooms. Offseason programs conclude with June minicamps and the league would have to take instruction from medical people about the safety of having players to report. The availability of widespread testing capabilities would be a factor before teams can reconvene. One top team executive said last week he does not believe players will be able to report to team facilities before training camps open late in the summer.
Also on Tuesday, Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president, club business and league events, indicated that the draft, which will take place April 23-25, will be held virtually. Team executives would make their selections from remote locations — not team facilities — and would be required to abide by social distancing guidelines and allow no more than 10 people in a room, all separated by at least six feet each. Players, former players and even possibly fans would also be involved virtually. The draft will also be used, O’Reilly said, as a vehicle to raise money for those most affected by the pandemic.