On the same day that rookies for the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans reported to their respective team headquarters for the initial COVID-19 tests of training camp, NFL Players Association executives and league owners continued to haggle about how to deliver a season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Texans and Chiefs are scheduled to meet in the regular-season opener Sept. 10. So in order to begin the return to action process, their rookies were required to show up both Monday and Tuesday to be tested for COVID-19 outside the teams' facilities. Players receiving consecutive negative tests will move on to the next phase, including two days of medical exams and equipment fittings.
Quarterbacks and injured players around the league are expected to report for duty Thursday, while all 32 teams expect to have their full teams in by July 28.
But a number of pressing matters still must be addressed for the NFL to return in earnest, the league and union continuing to work feverishly in search of solutions.
The owners held a video conference call at 2 p.m. ET on Monday in an attempt to resolve outstanding issues. From there, league officials and NFLPA leaders planned to resume their discussions, according to two people familiar with the situation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the process.
Here's where matters stand as player begin filtering back to work:
The Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans, who met in the 2019 NFL playoffs, are scheduled to kick off the 2020 regular season in September. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)
Testing and safety
Monday afternoon, the league and union agreed on daily COVID-19 testing for players, coaches and designated staff who interact with them throughout the first two weeks of training camp. Testing could then scale down to alternating days if positive rates dip to fewer than 5%.
All 32 teams have submitted their infectious disease emergency response (IDER) plans to NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills, and 25 had been approved and forwarded to the NFLPA.
Although they want to play, players have concerns about their own safety as well as that of their family members. As we’ve seen in other sports, some players could decide not to play this season. As of Monday afternoon, the owners and union had yet to agree on a deadline for those opt-out decisions, though the league had floated an August 1 deadline.
However, the players see a need for more time, especially since training camps will not even be in full swing by that date. They would prefer to have until just before the first preseason game – assuming there is one – to decide. The league and union also disagree on compensation for players who opt out. Owners initially proposed a $150,000 stipend for players who elect not to play because of health risk concerns. The union would prefer a sliding scale to more adequately benefit players who most need financial assistance. Signs point to the owners obliging.
Acclimation process and preseason
The NFLPA and league's joint task force agreed that to help minimize the risk of injury, players should undergo an acclimation period that allows for 21 days of strength and conditioning once camps start, 10 days of non-padded practices and 14 days of game preparations. To make this window possible, owners had wanted players to report two weeks early. But the union resisted given the terms already laid out in the collective bargaining agreement.
The need for an acclimation process has triggered questions about the practicality of a preseason. From the players’ perspective, there’s no way to acclimate their bodies and play games in August. The owners initially countered with the reduction from four games to two. Players remained opposed to that idea.
But owners seem willing to bend.
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In Sunday's counterproposal, ownership suggested just one preseason contest. Some players – particularly younger ones and veterans battling for roster spots – see the benefits of at least one live audition.
Still, as Sunday’s social media blitz indicated, many veterans still deem it very important that owners prioritize player health safety above the preseason revenue they would earn – even if affording each team one exhibition home game would provide valuable information regarding game-day operations amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We believe that the right focus for our players and our business is not only coming up with a way to start the season, but to contemplate a way to finish the season,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said during a conference call with reporters Friday.
“And engaging in two games where players would be flying all over the country and then meeting together to engage in work, we feel that doing that prior to the season doesn't properly influence or increase the likelihood of starting and finishing the season on time.”
Although the sides have made progress on health and safety aspects, they remain divided on determining how to absorb the financial blows that COVID-19 will deliver.
Because it appears unlikely that stadiums will be filled this season –some may even be empty – teams could lose enough revenue that the salary cap might fall from approximately $198 million per club this year to fewer than $130 million apiece in 2021.
Earlier this month, owners had proposed holding 35% of player salaries in escrow to help compensate for revenue losses. The players opposed such a proposal, arguing they actually were already subjecting themselves to great risk by simply taking the field amid the pandemic and thus shouldn’t be further penalized.
Players realize that a loss in revenue means a hit to the subsequent cap, however they propose spreading those shortfalls over the 10-year life of the CBA to make the financial impact less painful for all parties.
The owners have now abandoned the escrow idea, however they're considering cutbacks elsewhere, including various benefit reductions. The players oppose that solution, so discussions remain ongoing.
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