NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday that the league can "safely and responsibly complete the season" despite the increased incidence of COVID-19 cases around the country.
"It’s a remarkable achievement to reach this point, and we are proud of our players and all personnel for their tireless work and commitment," Goodell said on a conference call hours before the Steelers and Ravens kicked off in a game that had been postponed three times due to positive coronavirus cases with the Ravens. "Like our teams, we are focused on finishing strong."
The NFL has not had to cancel any games to this point, with the Ravens-Steelers matchup completing Week 12. With five games remaining, Goodell believes the league will finish on schedule and then have a full playoff tournament culminating with Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 in Tampa.
"We feel strongly that our protocols are working," Goodell said. "We’re willing to adjust those protocols, take additional steps."
Goodell also defended criticism that the league was ignoring the players’ safety by forging ahead with games, even with an increase in positive cases among players, coaches and team personnel.
"Health and medical decisions have and always will take precedence over competitive considerations and business interests," he said.
Asked if the league would introduce a "bubble" for teams in the playoffs, Goodell said there would not be one centralized location where teams would gather – similar to the NBA and NHL during their playoff earlier this year.
"I don’t see us doing a bubble in the sense that I think a lot of the media focuses on it," Goodell said. "We may look at ways to reduce the risks to our personnel, whether it’s players, coaches or other personnel, that would limit exposures."
The league has recently tightened its COVID-19 protocols, requiring that teams no longer have in-person meetings but instead use a virtual setting. Face coverings must be worn at all times, except when players are participating in practice drills.
Goodell said the decision not to postpone Sunday’s Broncos-Saints game, in which Denver had to use an emergency quarterback after it was discovered that the team’s three eligible quarterbacks had violated protocols by meeting without masks, was based on protocol violations. Unlike the Ravens’ situation, where multiple players had been exposed to and tested positive for the virus, the rules governing close contacts that the Broncos had violated required the quarterbacks to sit out.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said the league would consider vaccinating players, coaches and other personnel, but only when vaccines would become available after healthcare workers and other vulnerable populations have access to a vaccine.
"We want to work with public health authorities," he said. "We never want to do anything that hinders the public health effort. It is important that we are not seen as cutting the line with regard to a vaccine."