UPDATE: At 6:08 p.m. local time, the Packers announced they were closing public businesses including the Packers Pro Shop, Hall of Fame and Lambeau Field atrium to the public out of public health concerns. They’re also closing the playground and 46 Below in Titletown. Mark Murphy said the majority of personnel will be required to work from home and the team is suspending all business-related air travel for coaches, scouts, and other employees.
Football players and, really, all athletes can’t do their jobs while employing social distancing. The gravity of that inexorable truth played out Wednesday night when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 just minutes before tipoff of their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Players, coaches, and teams around the league who faced the Jazz could now be infected because playing basketball requires contact, sweat, saliva, and the myriad other ways the coronavirus can pass between people. Within minutes, the NBA decided to postpone the season, this coming just hours after the NCAA announced March Madness would take place without fans.
That, according to Columbia University infectious disease special Dr. Daniel Griffin, wouldn’t have been enough to protect players.
“If one athlete is infected, they’re all shared,” Griffin says. “It’s pretty hard not to see other people getting infected.”
Which is exactly what happened. One of Gobert’s teammates, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive, with more tests to come on the players and coaches who came in contact with Gobert over the last few days.
While NFL players aren’t actively playing games, they’re working out in gyms with other people, practicing in settings where contact is not only encouraged but necessary, and all of this could facilitate the spread of a highly contagious virus. For these young, healthy adults, the risk is extremely low. What makes this outbreak different than something like SARS is how mild the symptoms are for a vast majority of people. Those who have the virus may not even know, making them unwitting carriers to those around them.
“We realized that people who are young and healthy are just as likely to get infected,” Griffin said. “They tend to show less symptoms, but you test them, they’re shedding virus. For our athletes who are young and healthy, I think they will do quite well, but they will be able to spread it to others.”
And not everyone in an NFL building is a 25-year-old linebacker who runs 4.4 and can bench press 225 like it’s nothing. Coaches, support staff, administrators, and dozens of people make an NFL team work, not to mention the people players interact with on a day-to-day basis. According to Dr. Griffin, athletes and teams must be mindful of this as they go through the offseason, whether it’s adjusting workout locations, limiting travel etc.
Moreover, Dr. Griffin emphasized the risk to those athletes still isn’t zero.
“I said something that people found reassuring until recently people have thought it through: We have not seen a single death for children under the age of nine and what they’re saying is ‘That means nine-year-olds are dying and teenagers are dying.’ And I’m like ‘Yes you did take that to its logical conclusion.’ People in their 20’s and 30’s—at a lower rate than older people—but yes, people in their 20’s and 30’s are dying.”
This was not meant as fear mongering from Griffin; in fact, his original intention with the child death statistic was precisely the opposite. That said, Griffin makes it clear even young, healthy, wealthy athletes can’t dismiss the risk out of hand.
For now, the Green bay Packers maintain the status quo, according to a statement they released to media members Wednesday. A spokesperson for the team said as of Thursday afternoon they are still in “monitor and review” mode with their offseason process.
Some teams around the league have pulled coaches and scouts from traveling for pre-draft work like pro days, with the Giants making an official announcement they were ending travel for team employees and instructing those who could work from home to do so. The Chiefs reportedly told non-essential personnel to work from home for the next two weeks, while the Falcons also canceled travel for their employees.
An agent for one projected first-round pick told Acme Packing Company he expects some teams will handle interviews over FaceTime rather than in person at pro days or team-hosted interviews. The Athletic reported multiple teams reached out to prospects to let them know to expect this change for their interviews as well.
In the first big move by the NFL, the league canceled owners meetings, which were set to begin on March 29 in Palm Beach, Florida. In a statement, the league said, “The decision was made consistent with the league’s primary concern to protect the health of club and league employees and the public while enabling the league to continue with its essential operations.”
The league has not made any statements about the draft in Las Vegas next month, where some 700,000 people are expected to attend as spectators. Raiders owner Mark Davis said he expects the NFL to do the right thing, but for now, that event will go on, in direct contradiction to guidelines from top federal and state officials around the country.
For leagues like the NFL, who have offseason workouts and open team facilities, as well as looming decisions about OTA’s, mandatory minicamps and more, what can they do to protect their franchises?
“The first thing we did for our local soccer league was to basically shut down all the indoor practice,” Griffin said, citing the contamination concerns of indoor facilities which could also apply to places like team gyms and workout areas. Even outdoor practice, he says, runs some risk because contact in football is inevitable. In short, in order to train for, practice, or play football, players and coaches create risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Thursday, MLB announced they will delay the start of the baseball season at least two weeks amid health concerns, ending spring training early as well. The NHL and MLS have also put their seasons on hold. The NFL has more time before players will be required at the facility, but not much more time. Given the risk to everyone involved, the only way to avoid added risk is to avoid the situations that add to risk.
“If we miss one season of sports so that we don’t have a certain percentage of individuals die, these are the types of tough decisions we’re facing,” Griffin says.
Football players can’t practice social distancing, which may mean having to create distance from them and the game.
Editor’s Note: According to various federal, state, and local agencies, there are over 1,400 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the United States, with countless more around the world. We at Acme Packing Company wish the best for our readers and community members, and we encourage everyone to follow the guidelines and recommendations published by the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control or to reach out to your local health agency for suggestions on how to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in your communities.
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