Is the NFL Keeping Us Afloat During Coronavirus?
By: Ryan Murphy
The coronavirus has taken the entire world by storm over the last few months. Virtually every sports league in the world has shut down, and the month of March was a desolate place for sports. The fact that there was no March Madness says it all, and that’s the least of it. The NCAA cancelled all spring sports. The NBA and NHL shut down just as the playoff races were heating up. Soccer around the globe ceased.
And that was just March. The next four months have already seen the impact of the coronavirus, as well. The MLB has already missed opening day and will not play a single game in April for the first time since 1887. The Olympics and UEFA Euro 2020 have both been postponed until the summer of 2021. Wimbledon and The Open Championship have both cancelled their 2020 tournaments, as well. That has not happened since World War II. The severity of this virus simply cannot be understated.
And yet, although this virus has shut down sports and economies around the world, one league keeps chugging along. The NFL, which has had fingers pointed at it for the better part of the last decade, has continued business as usual.
Four days after the NBA suspended the season (March 11th), the NFL started their league calendar. On March 15th, the NFL players voted to approve a new collective bargaining agreement that ensures labor peace until 2030. The next day, the legal tampering period started – essentially opening free agency – and one of the most exciting NFL free agencies ever was underway.
Tom Brady left the Patriots after twenty years and six Super Bowl rings to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Byron Jones signed the largest cornerback contract in NFL history with the Miami Dolphins. Amari Cooper signed the largest receiver contract ever with the Dallas Cowboys. Additionally, a quarterback that threw for 5,109 yards last season and another who won the league MVP award in 2015 cannot find jobs (Jameis Winston and Cam Newton).
Going ahead with free agency as scheduled did not draw much criticism from fans because free agency can easily be conducted digitally. Additionally, the public had not yet fully grasped how severe the coronavirus situation is. Furthermore, it was probably a welcome relief for sports fans to see actual sports news rather than replays of old games and negative coronavirus news from around the world.
Now that there are over 362,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., the NFL is coming under strict scrutiny for its decision to go ahead with the 2020 NFL Draft as scheduled for April 23-25. Despite the fact that all fan events related to the draft have been cancelled and the league has made this year’s draft entirely virtual – barring team executives and staffs from congregating at team facilities or other locations – some fans have still been critical.
Adam Schefter, the leading reporter on all things NFL, has perhaps been the most outspoken critic. While speaking on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt on April 1st, Schefter said the draft was going ahead as planned “only through the sheer force and determination and lack of foresight from the NFL.” He continued, “[The NFL is] determined to put [the draft on] while there is carnage in the streets.”
Do you agree? Let’s take a look at it from the NFL’s side to make sense of it all. The coronavirus is currently projected to peak across the U.S. between mid-April and mid-May depending on the state. The NFL regular season, on the other hand, is scheduled to start in September. At this point, an optimistic estimate would suggest that social distancing protocols would be lifted at some point in late June or July.
As such, teams likely won’t be able to return to normal activities until July at the very best. Organized Team Activities (OTAs) this season are scheduled from as early as May 14th to early June. In other words, they’re not going to happen; at least not as scheduled.
Training camps typically start in late July. Considering that July is the optimistic start date for return to normalcy, that timeframe certainly looks to be in question as well.
So, from that perspective, the criticisms of holding the draft mid-pandemic seem warranted. What is the point of requiring teams to pick players when team executives can’t meet and prospects can’t be evaluated in person because congregations of people are banned? It’s not like there are going to be offseason workouts in May or June anyway. So why is there an urgency to hold the draft?
Well, consider the other side of the coin. Suppose the teams do get to start training camp as scheduled in late July or early August. Presumably, then, the season would get underway on time. Even if the season gets delayed slightly, preseason games could be sacrificed to get the games back on track.
For whatever it’s worth, President Trump said on April 4th that he believes the NFL season should start on time in September. Whether you believe him or not, it is certainly a possibility. After all, that is five months away, and no one – not even the scientists – can definitively predict what will happen with this unprecedented virus in the next five months.
Therefore, the NFL is operating under the old adage, “Prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” There is really nothing that NFL teams can do at the moment to prepare for the worst. The worst is unknown, and Article 12 of the CBA and Article 6 of player contracts already dictate what happens to games and salaries if the season is altered due to unforeseen acts of God, like the coronavirus. Players will not start earning salaries until the first day of the regular season, whenever that is, and if the season were shortened, they would likely receive pro-rated salaries depending on the amount of games played. The details of a shortened season would be subject to NFL and NFLPA negotiation.
Hoping for the best, however, training camp and the season will start on time. In order for that to happen, teams must be able to communicate with their players to teach them the playbook and establish offseason workout plans.
So, consider what would happen if the draft were delayed. If critics are unhappy with it in April, they certainly would not be happy with it in May or June, given the projections for the spread of the virus. Therefore, the best-case scenario for the draft would be July, as it was for training camp. Assuming rookies did not know what team they played for until late July, it would essentially make a September start to the season impossible.
It is simply unfair and impractical to draft rookies to the NFL and expect them to master a playbook, adjust to a complete culture shock, and be ready to play regular season games in just over a month. With that said, pushing the draft back is hardly an option if the NFL is truly hoping for the best, which all of humanity is at this point.
Therefore, although holding this draft may create some problems and controversy in the short term, it is the only feasible solution to get the NFL season underway in September. And whether you think the NFL is right or wrong, you cannot fault them for trying to start the season on time.
America loves football, and you would be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t want to see it start in September. In order for that to happen, the NFL has to hold the 2020 Draft in April, as scheduled. The league was going to be criticized one way or the other, so it opted to take criticism in the short term in the hopes that it could satisfy the desires of sports fans everywhere in five months.
The NFL had to make a tough call, and it did. Whether you’re critical now or not, I would bet my bottom dollar that football fans will be tuned into the draft on April 23rd, and they will not only be happy about it, but it will keep them afloat amid this pandemic. This virus is causing a tough time for everyone and the NFL has provided us with some normalcy in its midst.
Regardless of how people feel now, they will be excited about the draft and they will be excited when the season starts. All of today’s criticisms of the league will drift by the wayside, because America needs the NFL, and this is just the latest manifestation of that truth.
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