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NFL still plans to hold games in home stadiums, maybe even with fans as pandemic continues

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2020, file

FILE - In this Jan. 29, 2020, file photo, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell answers a question during a news conference for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game in Miami. It’s been over three months since the commissioners of major sports cancelled or postponed events because of the coronavirus. Enough time for us to grade them on how they’ve handled the virus so far. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File) Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

The NFL plans to have training camps open on schedule and play its games in home stadiums – perhaps even with fan attendance – employing health and safety protocols for players and staff to combat a coronavirus pandemic that on Wednesday produced the highest number of infections nationwide since April.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday after a virtual meeting of team owners that there was a “lengthy discussion on our preparation for the 2020 season and our ongoing work as we prepare to open training camps on time and to get ready for games at our stadiums and then to engage our fans both in stadiums and through our media partners.”

Training camps are scheduled to begin on July 28 for most teams, though rookies and certain players may report earlier. The regular-season openers are slated for Sept. 10 and NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash said that although games are expected to be played in home stadiums, there will be contingency plans if local health officials deem them unsafe.

The virtual meeting was wide ranging, also including a voter registration initiative and a program intended to support racial diversity in hiring at all positions across the league.

The owners approved a proposal to install coverings for the seats that are closest to the field as a protective barrier between team personnel and potential spectators.

“The number-one goal is keeping our players and our staff and all of our fans safe and these seat covers .  . . provide clear separation between the players and fans," executive vice president for NFL partnerships Renie Anderson said. "It’s important to note that this is not meant to displace fans if we’re able to have full fan scenarios.”

Anderson called the possibility of advertisements “an added opportunity,” but said the space that will be prominent in television broadcasts could be used for other messaging.

There are a number of issues that remain under discussion between ownership and the NFL Players Association. Among them are whether to shorten the four-week schedule of preseason games with an eye to keeping teams healthy and whether rosters will be expanded to prepare teams for a potential coronavirus outbreak. The NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, said that both groups are “having very active discussions with engineering consultants” on modifications to helmets that could add protection against transmission during play.

Already front and center, the pandemic on Thursday forced the Pro Football Hall of Fame to cancel the 2020 Hall of Fame Game between the Steelers and the Cowboys that had been scheduled for Aug. 6 and to postpone its Aug. 8 enshrinement ceremonies. The new plan is to have the Pittsburgh-Dallas matchup be the 2021 Hall of Fame Game and to have the 2020 inductees enshrined with the 2021 inductees in a multiday event a year from August.

Sills said the league has put together a “very ambitious testing program,” but also emphasized that “everyone in that team environment is going to share the same risks [and] responsibilities with each other, which means that everyone is going to be dependent on every other member of that team environment.”

The decision to get behind a voting initiative comes largely from conversations among players, coaches and front office staff with Goodell. It will not only seek to educate everyone in the NFL about voting rights but also, according to NFL senior vice president for social responsibility Anna Isaacson, get them to “inspire others to vote.”

The NFL recently pledged $250 million over 10 years to the effort to combat systemic racism and justice reform. Troy Vincent, the NFL executive vice president for football operations, said that the 32 teams participated in bias training on June 4 and that there will be training on antiracism in July.

Along those lines Carolina Panthers first-year coach Matt Rhule said Thursday that he would consider kneeling during the national anthem with players to support the movement against racial injustice. On a Zoom call with reporters, he said, “I’m supportive of the cause. I’m supportive of the movement. I’m supportive of social justice,” before adding that he would consult with his players before deciding.

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