So far, the National Football League is a step ahead of the virus.
Somehow, without locking down in a protective bubble, even as the United States totaled about 54,000 new coronavirus cases Thursday, pro football is still practicing and aiming for a mid-September regular-season opening.
The NBA, WNBA and NHL are in maximum security, playing in sequestered corners of North America and in their own ways avoiding if not conquering the disease.
Pro football players, from the Indianapolis Colts to the Green Bay Packers to the Seattle Seahawks, are in preseason training camps around the country, practicing while also exercising the type of caution usually reserved for circumstances featuring yellow flashing lights.
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Several major college conferences pushed football to this spring this week. Several states have delayed the start of their high school football seasons, though Indiana starts Aug. 21.
Pro football teams are trying to do it their way, still hold a season amidst one of the most challenging situations the planet has endured outside of wars, without athletes falling sick in droves.
Thus far, the NFL is winning. As of earlier this week, the league had administered more than 109,000 COVID-19 tests and the positive rate, for coaches, players and employees, was 0.46%, a remarkably low rate compared to many states and countries.
Also, the NFL gave players, particularly those falling into high-risk health categories, the option of receiving some pay rather than full pay while sitting out the season and 66 players took advantage. Maybe those guys would have raised the positive result rate, if not now, then later.
Still, that is a good leaguewide report, encouraging for the athletes hoping to play. Will it last? Nobody knows. Major League Baseball went the bubble-free route and the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals broke safety rules, confronted a rash of positive tests and had to cope with postponed games and a disrupted schedule.
Colts coach Frank Reich said the early testing results has produced some optimism on league protocols on social distancing, use of hand sanitizer, wearing face masks and the like.
“But I don’t take it for granted,” he said. “This is not one thing we want to come up and bite us. I’m almost surprised at how few cases there are.”
While preparing for a Sept. 13 opening game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Reich has noted more than once that roster planning in the age of COVID-19 must be different. What if a key player gets sick and must quarantine in midseason and then the backup becomes ill, too?
Reich said he and general manager Chris Ballard talk about such scenarios regularly. Free agent signee Philip Rivers will be the starting quarterback. Jacoby Brissett, who ran the show last season, is the No. 2. The Colts wonder if they should carry a third quarterback because of the virus threat.
“We’ll weigh the pros and cons of going with two or going with three,” Reich said.
It is a month to the beginning of the season and no exhibition games in between, making for an eternity to first kickoff by virus standards. It is definitely not clear how many, or if, fans will be allowed into buildings to watch games.
Certain jurisdictions have banned accommodating any spectators for NFL games, including New York, Philadelphia and Washington. The Atlanta Falcons hope to permit thousands of fans in, though well short of full houses.
The Colts announced a plan for limited seating, but the Indianapolis 500 planned to permit in a percentage of Indianapolis Motor Speedway capacity and then reversed course. For most basic gatherings, Indiana has been operating on a 250-person limit.
One Colts player thinking positive rather than testing positive is veteran receiver T.Y. Hilton. He reports to workouts each day with a solid belief everything will work out and the NFL will both start and finish its schedule.
“I mean, with the COVID-19 testing every day, I feel like we are pretty safe,” Hilton said. “We’re wearing stuff over our face. I think we will be able to finish.”
Some states with NFL franchises have recorded more than half a million virus cases. Worldwide positive tests shot past 20 million this week.
No matter what policies the NFL put in place, COVID-19 might overpower the remedies.
Lew Freedman is the Sports Editor for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected] aimmediaindiana.com.