How the NFL is handling the coronavirus pandemic during its offseason

By Brent Schrotenboer USA TODAY

Unlike the NBA and other major sports, the most popular league in America hasn’t yet needed to face tough decisions about whether to postpone games or cancel the rest of its season.

The NFL instead has moved through its offseason without much disruption, nearly six months from the start of games in September.

But it’s not exactly business as usual for the NFL in the age of COVID-19. And the league doesn’t consider itself lucky because of the timing of the outbreak in U.S., said Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.

“This is a global health crisis, and we in the NFL, as a major part of the fabric of American life, are extremely concerned about this,” Sills said. “We take very seriously our responsibility in these times.”

That includes how it will conduct the NFL draft, how it recommends tests for the coronavirus and how business is conducted in the offseason. After other winter and spring sports postponed or canceled games to help slow the viral spread, Sills addressed the league’s own efforts in an interview with USA TODAY Sports:

The NFL draft in Las Vegas April 23-25. The league has said the draft will be televised but with no “public events” or crowd as usual.  But will players be there to take the stage as they normally are when they are chosen by NFL teams? Sills said those details are still being worked out.

“We realize it will be an extremely heavily viewed event, and we will have the opportunity to use our platform to reinforce what the appropriate measures are,” Sills said.

That means the league will be abiding by the recommendations of public health authorities. The federal government currently recommends against discretionary travel and gatherings of more than 10 people.

“We believe we have an important obligation, responsibility and opportunity to really model what the best behavior is,” Sills said.

Testing for the virus. Amid a national shortage of tests, the NBA has received criticism because several teams have undergone testing for the coronavirus, including players who aren’t showing symptoms. This has led to the perception that the famous and wealthy have access to testing when others who need it don’t.

The NFL’s position is to test according to certain criteria and to follow the recommendations of public health authorities.

“We believe that only players who are symptomatic or have a high degree of exposure should be tested,” Sills said. “Those are the principles that are guiding our testing at this time.”

Sills declined to say how many NFL players or personnel have been tested or if anybody tested positive. New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton revealed Thursday he tested positive for COVID-19 after not feeling well recently, becoming the first confirmed NFL case.

Payton urged others to follow social distancing guidelines and other expert recommendations to help keep the spread of the disease from spiking beyond the capacity of the U.S. healthcare system.

“Take a minute to understand what the experts are saying,” Payton told ESPN. “It’s not complicated to do what they’re asking of us. Just that type of small investment by every one of us will have a dramatic impact.”

Even though NFL teams typically screen draft prospects and free agents for health concerns, Sills said teams are not testing them for the virus unless there is a medical reason for it.

“Our testing is completely being driven by medical indications as given by public health authorities currently,” he said.

Offseason business. Much of the NFL is having employees work from home like other businesses to help minimize the spread of the virus.

“If you look at our league offices … we only have essential personnel who are present on a day-to-day basis, and everyone else is working remotely,” Sills said. “We’ve switched all our meetings over 10 people to virtual or phone meetings. That’s the behavior we’re taking from a league standpoint, and that’s what we’re asking all our clubs as well.”

The NFL and NFL Players Association announced Monday that team facilities currently are closed to players for at least two weeks, except those who have medical needs. The league and NFLPA receive updated guidelines on hygiene and other preventive measures from the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network (DICON), based in North Carolina.

Offseason events. Offseason team workouts scheduled for next month have been postponed indefinitely. After the draft, the next big NFL team events are mini-camps in May. Training camps start in mid-July.

Sills said no determination has been made about postponing those.

“What’s really key for us right is to have what I would call a balanced approached,” Sills said. “We should remain calm. We have to remain educated with the facts from reputable sources. And we ask everyone to ask the same questions we’re asking of ourselves: What’s our part here? What can we do to reduce the spread of the virus and make sure that we’re using healthcare services in the most appropriate manner?”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]