Eric Rowe has a theory on when, where and how he typically gets sick every year.
Right when flu season rolls through the country in the fall, one of his teammates becomes ill, sneezes or coughs a few times inside the locker room and, like clockwork, waves of his NFL teammates will have similar symptoms.
Within days virtually the whole team becomes infected.
“That’s been the norm,” Rowe, the Miami Dolphins’ starting safety pointed out, explaining the Petri dish that 100 players and coaches in locker rooms and team meetings creates for NFL teams. “So just imagine how quickly [COVID-19 3/8 is going to spread.”
Rowe’s concerns about catching the illness that has triggered a world-wide pandemic sits in the back of every NFL player’s mind as 32 NFL teams inch closer to opening up their facilities later this month.
Training camp is scheduled to open in less than two weeks, but there is plenty of uncertainty about all the logistical issues, and the level of safety teams are creating for their workforce.
The NFL Players Association expressed concerns Friday for players returning to facilities, especially those traveling to South Florida to train or play for teams such as the Dolphins, which are housed in a national coronavirus hotspot.
The league and its players association want to begin training camp on time on July 28, but want to ensure players are tested daily to prevent the spread of the disease. Negotiations with the owners have been ongoing, but little progress is being made.
“The league has made the decision that they want training camp to open on time. The role of the union is to hold them accountable about whether it is safe, and to what extent it is safe, to open training camp now,” NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith said in a Zoom video conference with media.
“Every decision we make that doesn’t look at the long term of getting through a full season is going to set us up for failure,” added JC Tretter, president of the NFLPA who plays center for the Cleveland Browns.
A summer of Zoom meetings and social-distanced workouts could all be pointless if the owners and players can’t come to terms on COVID-19 protocol designed to be keep players, coaches and their families safe.
The NFLPA recently announced that 72 players have tested positive for COVID-19, and the odds are high that in a workforce of nearly 3,000 players reporting to training camp, the positive cases will increase further when every player is tested.
“We’ve got guys going home to elderly people, and pregnant wives and girlfriends and people whose immune system is compromised,” Chicago Bears receiver Allen Robinson said after one of his training sessions at Pete Bommarito Performance Systems in South Florida, which has helped dozens of NFL players prepare for camp while complying with social-distancing regulations.
“The unknown is the scariest part,” said Dolphins tailback Jordan Howard. “They had all this time to figure things out but decided to ramp things up at the last minute. Hopefully they can figure things out and we can get back to football.”
Most training camps have already been closed to the public already. And there’s plenty of skepticism about whether fans will be in NFL stands on gameday because of social-distancing guidelines. Some teams already have announced reduced stadium capacities should regular-season games be played.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg because some NFL locales could be on the verge of shutting down again, attempting to turn the tide as infections and infection rates rise.
Dolphins linebacker Vince Biegel was recently on one of many calls the NFLPA has held with its workforce and their agents, and he could sense a ton of “unrest and concern” from his peers.
“If I contract COVID-19, what protections do I have as a player? Is that a football injury? What is that? Is that an illness? Are you gonna be put on [injured reserve]?,” Biegel asked. “What kind of things are you going to do as an NFL organization to protect me from this?”
Players have been having constant discussions with one another, seeking answers to those questions, and gauging whether the owners have their best interests in mind.
“What if it’s four weeks in the season and we’ve got 10 players catch it?” Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones asked. “What are we going to do about it, especially if it’s significant starters in the league? We’ve got questions and concerns.”
Will players who test positive for COVID-19 be put on injured reserve, or will the owners create a roster exemption for them, allowing teams to sign or promote players from the practice squad to the 53-man roster until they are symptom-free?
Are preseason games necessary, and how many? The owners are pushing for two while the NFLPA’s stance is that exhibition games aren’t necessary. The NFLPA wants more training camp days because there were no offseason program or minicamps.
“Back in 2011 [during] the lockout, guys had the ability to train in the offseason but they didn’t have OTAs and they had limited camp and the injuries ramped up a lot. That’s a big deal,” Robinson said. “A lot of [training facilities] haven’t been open. I feel prepared, but depending where guys where, say New York, they haven’t really had much time at all to be able to work out at a facility.”
The bottom line is players have more questions than NFL teams and the NFLPA have provided answers for, and time is running out.
“It’s really just a guessing game as far as what’s going on in the future,” Dolphins safety Steven Parker said during a break between his two workouts on Thursday. “Only thing we can do is stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.”
Staff writer Safid Deen contributed to this story.
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