By Harvey Hoffman
As the rest of the sports world has realized that the health of the players and fans is more important than the bottom line, NFL owners are being dragged kicking and screaming into the coronavirus reality.
According to ESPN, many execs are skeptical that the NFL will be able to start its league year this week, which would include typical in-person visits, including physicals, that would have to happen as part of free agency.
Some believe the NFL is waiting for voting results from the NFL Players Association on the proposed collective bargaining agreement to announce its next step, in hopes of avoiding a third delay to the players’ CBA decision. The vote ended Saturday at 11:59 p.m. ET, with a simple majority needed to pass.
But the NFL continues to say it’s business as usual and that the new league year will start at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday as planned, with legal tampering for free agents set to begin at noon ET Monday.
That typically opens a slew of meetings between teams and players or their representatives. But given the calls for social distancing as the number of coronavirus cases exceeds 2,000 in the U.S. and approaches 150,000 worldwide, the NFL might need to consider ways to limit direct contact.
The league has already taken steps to do so with NFL draft hopefuls, prohibiting “all in-person, pre-draft visits involving draft-eligible players” as communicated to general managers, head coaches and player personnel directors in a memo that was obtained by ESPN’s Dan Graziano.
The move, which went into effect at the end of Friday’s business day, prevents draft prospects from visiting team headquarters and team personnel from attending pro days. Teams may communicate with prospects via telephone or video conference, but they must report those instances to the league’s player personnel department.
The memo came amid a wave of statements from individual teams announcing they were pulling their scouts and player personnel staff from the road amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The league has also canceled its annual meeting, which was scheduled to be held in West Palm Beach, Florida, from March 29 through April 1.
The NFL has adjusted to a truncated calendar before. In 2011, amid a lockout that ran from March to August, the league year did not begin until Aug. 4, with preseason games starting a week later.