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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith painted a picture on Thursday of a second straight virtual offseason, with players potentially taking the field again in 2021 without having been vaccinated for COVID-19.
“To think that we are going to be in a vaccine-neutral state (as a country) in September is probably not the case,” Smith said in Tampa, three days out from Super Bowl LV. “We’ve got tremendous work to do in the country, and I think the goal should be to focus on that. What we found out is we can fix football. … I care far more about Americans getting vaccinated and reaching herd immunity than... about NFL players getting vaccinated to have a better practice.”
Goodell added: “We said many times we’re not gonna jump in line. We think the priorities that are established by the health experts to get the frontline workers and others, teachers, vaccinated are things that are necessary.”
Goodell said point blank of the NFL’s new norm: “Virtual is gonna be part of our life for the long-term.”
The commissioner said that the owners “anticipate a lot of things we did last year with respect to training camps, with respect to the offseason” will be in place again in 2021. But he granted that “our coaches feel strongly… that there’s value in the training camp, in practices, in having preseason games,” and he expected a solution creating a balance between the two.
But Goodell admitted he could not answer questions about whether unvaccinated players will be participating in games, or if the NFL will try to admit only vaccinated fans into stadiums to seek a return to full attendance.
“It’s far too early to get into that because we don’t have answers for that at this stage,” Goodell said. “They’re just questions, and I don’t have answers to that today. Those are things we’ll work on… to make sure that if we do have opportunities to bring fans back into the stands next year, how do we do that safely?”
Goodell and Smith were adamant about patting themselves on the back, though, for completing the 2020 NFL season safely, in their minds, and fitting in every game.
Goodell said the NFL had 1.2 million fans in their 20 stadiums “without any outbreaks or any root cause that attending those games caused a health hazard in the community.”
“There were doubters. Obviously there were people that didn’t believe we could do it,” Goodell said.
The NFL said on Wednesday that eight percent of their players and staff had tested positive for the virus this season. The league is championing that number, ignoring the context that eight percent is much higher than zero would have been.
There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about the coronavirus, its long-term effects, and new strains now prevalent. And there were NFL team outbreaks with clubs like the Titans, Ravens and Browns that were serious and scary ordeals for many individuals involved, regardless if they’re being treated as mere hiccups now.
Smith made an unusual comment that “let’s not forget: the vaccine’s great, (but) social distancing, wearing a mask, testing and contract tracing is the most effective killer of the virus — not the vaccine.”
But he seemed to mean that the NFL’s players don’t need the vaccine to play football safely, because they know the protocols to keep the virus at bay.
Regardless, the NFL, the players’ union, the players and staff completed the 2020 season by following constantly evolving protocols. And they clearly believe if they have to play another season using those protocols, they can.
But presumably, without players being vaccinated, the players’ union then would have to negotiate another round of player opt-outs for those not comfortable or able to risk it due to their health or the health of their loved ones.
So barring a vaccine for the player and NFL staff population, we’re looking at another complicated and compromised year for many athletes and everyone else associated with these franchises.
Such it is in a pandemic.
NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, a center for the Cleveland Browns, did his part to further argue against limited offseason on-field workouts. Tretter said in the past it was a “false reality that a ton of reps are necessary,” when all it does is wear down players’ bodies. He said players felt “mentally and physically sharper” at the end of the 2020 season with less on-field work.
Goodell, meanwhile, did his part Thursday to “endorse” the vaccine for all Americans and to urge fans to be smart and safe while celebrating this Sunday’s Super Bowl, citing recently released CDC guidelines.
“We want our fans to be safe, they need to be smart, they need to wear their PPE, they need to gather in small groups,” Goodell said.
The NFL commissioner did say that the NFL is “planning for international games” in 2021 after cancelling their overseas games in 2020. But he couched that “we’re gonna stay in close contact with our partners in the (United Kingdom) and Mexico and make sure we are doing that safely. If at any point time we don’t think we can execute that safely, we’ll make that determination.”
ANOTHER CONCUSSION CONTROVERSY
Goodell punted any liability on accusations that the NFL’s concussion settlement program requires clinicians to make race a factor when evaluating former players to determine payouts. But he admitted the possibility of changes to the program if ordered by a judge.
“The concussion settlement is something that is overseen by a federal court,” Goodell said. “We are not part of selecting the clinicians and medical experts who are making the decisions on a day to day basis. Obviously we will work with the court and continue to see if there are changes that need to be made, but those will be determined by the court.”
An ABC News report revealed that some clinicians involved in these examinations fear they have been complicit in a program that discriminates against Black former players. ABC News said former players Kevin Henry and Najeh Davenport filed a lawsuit accusing the NFL of “explicitly and deliberately” discriminating against Black players filing dementia-related claims.
The NFL’s settlement program manual recommends the use of “full demographic correction” in which a players’ cognitive test scores are compared to average scores for similar demographic groups that are then adjusted to account for expected differences in age, gender, education and race.
According to ABC News, the players allege that this practice of “race-norming” assumes that the average Black player starts at a lower level of cognitive functioning than the average white player at the outset of their careers. So the Black players need to show larger cognitive declines than white players to qualify for compensation.
A DIVERSITY PROBLEM
Goodell said he expects a more diverse head coaching pool and will continue to discuss the point with owners now that only three of 32 head coaches are Black men.
“It wasn’t what we expected, and it’s not what we expect,” Goodell said of a hiring cycle that saw seven vacancies filled by the Jets’ Robert Saleh (Lebanese American), the Texans’ David Culley (a Black man) and five white men, including three under the age of 40. “They’re not the outcomes we wanted.”
The Chargers’ Anthony Lynn, a Black man, also was fired in the process. And Black candidates such as Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy were passed over (again) for less qualified white candidates.
OTHER NUGGETS AND NOTES
Goodell championed that the NFL didn’t just complete its season but did so at a high level, citing the highest scoring season in league history. What he did not mention is that scoring was up because the officials put their whistles in their pockets to ensure the product was palatable. Holding penalties were called 40% less often in 2020 (430 times) compared to 2019 (724), a staggering drop … Goodell slipped and referred to the Washington Football Team by its old nickname. Host Steve Wyche of NFL Media corrected the commissioner. Not long after, Goodell then called the team the Washington Football Club … Smith gave Goodell a chummy fistpound and joined the commissioner on stage for a rare dual appearance at the end of Goodell’s presser. It’s good that Smith and Goodell have a relationship and can collaborate and compromise. It’s just uncommon to see a union leader that friendly with a league commissioner.