The NFL has a big problem. On Friday 24 July 2020 the amended CBA came into effect when it was ratified by the NFLPA. At the time of writing (29 July 2020), 25 players have opted out of the league season for 2020-21 (for an up to date list see CBS's tracker here). The deadline for opt-outs is August 4, by which time half the league may not be suiting up! (This is hyperbole but who knows at this point....)
Even if the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl this year, at the current rate of drop-outs the win would be devalued (I'd still take it mind you...). Frankly, it's best for everyone if the only opt-outs are for medical grounds, and minimise the number of voluntary opt-outs.
I contend that the NFL's plan to get the league up and running, as agreed in the CBA, is the very thing that puts the league in jeopardy.
In this post, I will highlight the key points of the amended CBA, including the timetable to start the season. I will also discuss why this is unsafe, as highlighted by the examples in other national and international sports, and what needs to be done right now to fix it so the sport can operate this season.
The Amended CBA
Per NFL.com, the amended CBA allows: larger 16-man practice squads (which would have been 12-man this season); high-risk (medical) and voluntary opt-outs of the season; and the absence of preseason games.
High-risk opt-outs will receive a $350k stipend and their contract will toll (i.e. delay). Voluntary opt-outs will receive a salary advance of $150k and their contract will toll as well.
Training camp is set to be comprised of 20 days of a ramp-up period and a maximum of 14 padded practices before game 1. Previously, the camp could open no earlier than 15 days before the team's first scheduled preseason game, but then preseason lasted 5 weeks. Effectively, this means 30 days less with the team before week 1.
Financially, the league will spread the impact of any fall in 2020 revenue over 4 years, beginning in 2021. The minimum salary cap will be $175m in 2021, down from $198.2m in 2020. If the financial losses are not as great as anticipated, there is room for the cap to increase in 2021.
Rosters, currently allowed 90 players, must be trimmed down to 80 players by August 16, and no more than 80 players are allowed in the building at any one time. Training camp can proceed with 90 players but must be split into two groups that do not interact OR cut 10 players from the roster and the remaining 80 players can work out together (the Lions have decided on the former approach, see USA Today).
The key problem for the 2020 season with the CBA
There are two main issues with the plan as it stands. Firstly, the number of opt-outs; secondly not using bio-bubbles throughout the season puts the player's health at risk.
The CBA anticipates that some players will need to opt-out of the season on medical grounds. This is not only a sensible decision but the right thing to do. Sports are important but are not worth dying for (no matter what Bill Shankley said about the importance of sport). However, the number of non-medical opt-outs is alarming, and really, who can blame them?
Per NFL.com, as of 7/29, there are 3 high-risk opt-outs, 8 unspecified, and 14 voluntary opt-outs. This would not seem like a large number had we already reached the deadline for opt-outs, however, this is 6 days away and many more should follow. Opting out began with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif who is a medical doctor and is working in Montreal to combat the virus and care for patients; his decision came on July 24. The remaining opt-outs were far more recent, on July 27 and 28 which suggests there are more to come as players consider their position. There are several issues here:
1) There are about 32 x 90 = 2880 players currently under contract in the NFL. Of these, 55 per team will be on the roster come the season beginning, and perhaps 16 on the practice squad. That means a minimum of 608 players will be cut (net of FA signings and releases). If you were likely to be cut and are currently under contract at the veteran minimum - why not take the 150 grand and run?
2) What happens when a high profile player, or 3, decides that either their own health or their family's, is worth more than one year of their contracted deal? The NFL's attraction, much like any entertainment, is driven by their superstars, and the product is irrecoverably damaged by this. The medical opt-outs are unavoidable, but the conditions to play must be so safe that no superstar player voluntarily opts-out in fear.
This lays out the case for opt-outs being undesirable, but it does not highlight why this may happen - which is part of the second point highlighted above - the lack of bio-bubbles.
Bio-bubbles (or the lack of)
Currently, the NFL is not pursuing the use of the so-called 'bio-bubble' technique to run the season. The reason that they are not doing this, as per the NFL's CMO via Tom Pelissero, is the NFL "do not feel it's practical or appropriate to construct a bubble".
The sports currently pursuing the bio-bubble usage are, the NHL, MLS, English Premier League soccer, European Tour Golf, International Cricket, and many more. The NHL has had no positive tests so far during training camp. After a rocky start, the MLS has had no new positive tests since July 14. The EPL has had 18 positive tests since May 17 which is astonishing over that time frame. If you want to ensure that the number of positive tests is minimized, a bio-bubble seems effective.
The league, however, is not wrong that the use of them is impractical. As the season schedule stands, the players would be entering the bubble now, and not resurfacing until after the regular season ends (for non-playoff teams) in early January, or for Super Bowl bound teams this would be early February. Asking a player to isolate from their loved ones, family, and friends and effectively living out of a hotel with little to no liberty for the best part of 6 months seems impractical to say the least! However, the recent spate of cases of Covid-19 in baseball suggests that the lack of a bubble puts players and their families at risk.
Players should consider that the possibility of them catching the virus is higher if a bubble is not used, even if they do not take any unnecessary trips or do anything 'risky'. Why would players trust their teammates to be just as risk-averse as they are? Especially since a new report suggests that 76% of Covid survivor's hearts are as damaged as if they've had a heart attack - even if they haven't been hospitalised (which 2/3rds of which were not - source).
To be clear, the lack of a bubble means that players can (pretty much) do anything they like. In the amended CBA there will be discipline for doing any activity which is seen as "high risk" which, per the Around the NFL podcast, were things like "going to an indoor club with more than 15 people". However, players will still do these sorts of things. This has been demonstrated by incidents in other professional sports that have already started. Players will also be living at home with their families, and these family members may do high-risk things and bring the virus home to the players. The chain from potential infection of someone you come into contact with and infecting the rest of the team is obvious.
There is one obvious truth - if the league wants to go ahead they must use a bubble.
So, how do we make a bubble less inconvenient, and more practical?
Implementing a bio-bubble
The main issue, as I see it, is that players will have to bubble for the entire season, about 6 months, away from their families and real-life - effectively confined to a hotel room or a gym for six months. That's hard for anyone to bear - I couldn't do it.
So, let's change that.
The only way to do that is to accept that the season needs to be extended. This is the single biggest hurdle - you cannot build bio-bubbles shorter than 6 months unless you build in breaks into the season where players can go home and there are no games.
The league schedule splits into 5 parts:- 4 quarters of the regular season and the playoffs.
Each quarter consists of 4 weekly games. The playoffs are also played as 4 weekly games. Between each 'quarter' are three 'bye' weeks. The first week is used for players to break the bubble, do normal things, and see their families. The next 2 weeks are to allow for self-isolation to go back into a monthly bubble, and this continues throughout the season. This adds four 3 week "bye periods", or 12 weeks to the schedule, which would see the season end in early May.
The draft is then postponed until mid-June, hopefully in good time for the season to start as normal in 2021.
I feel that this provides the best compromise in terms of allowing the safest way to play the game whilst allowing the bubbles to be time-limited enough so that they are not locking up players for 6 months at a time. It will minimise the risk to the players and their families, and should also minimise any non-medical opt-outs and make this season as good as it can be!
What do you think about the NFL's current plans? Do you think they will work? Would you change my proposal above? Please leave a comment below, or tweet us here.