NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expressed cautious optimism that the league’s protocols to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic will allow the continuation of the 2020 season through the Super Bowl in February.
"We recognize this season will be unlike any other," Goodell told reporters Tuesday after briefing league owners and top executives in a two-hour virtual meeting. "We expected positive COVID cases . . . our protocols are designed to identify, isolate and prevent the spread of the disease."
Goodell acknowledged, however, that an increase in infections might necessitate changes to the schedule later in the season. A COVID-19 outbreak on the Titans and three cases with the Patriots have necessitated juggling of games, although the Titans resumed their season Tuesday night against the Bills.
"If there was one consistent theme to our season, it’s flexibility and adapting," he said. "Flexibility is going to be critical. We evaluate as many different areas that we think will be helpful. To be able to complete our season, that’s the goal. To do it safely, that’s the critical component. We want to make sure every decision is based on safety."
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said there have been "about 100" positive COVID cases among coaches, players and staff out of close to 500,000 tests.
"The strategy is testing, tracing and isolation," he said. "Those are the three components we will continue to use, and that’s what’s going to help us move forward."
Sills said that several areas of the country are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, which complicates the NFL’s mission even further.
"There’s a significant increase in incidence in a lot of our club’s communities, and that’s going to present an ongoing challenge," he said. "That challenges us to redouble our efforts, to go back to those measures that keep us safe."
Sills indicated the league is not inclined to use COVID-19 "bubbles" to keep teams isolated during the season, although he did not discount the possibility entirely.
"We’ve been discussing a bubble since back in March, but I think we have to recognize there are no perfect solutions," he said. "A bubble is not going to keep out all infections. Simply being in the bubble doesn’t keep us safe." He added that it is unfair that players "be sequestered away from their families for three months . . . That’s just as much of a health and safety consideration, particularly with the holidays … The bubble isn’t foolproof. In fact, infection can spread more rapidly inside a bubble if it is introduced."
Goodell said the league continues to monitor the Titans’ situation but added that the focus isn’t to discipline the team because of the outbreak. The Titans have acknowledged that some players did not consistently wear masks before the outbreak began. The players also held unauthorized practices away from the practice facility after being told not to gather.
"This is not about discipline," Goodell said. "This is about keeping our personnel safe. That’s been our entire focus to date."
Goodell is encouraged about the continuing popularity of the NFL, despite the pandemic.
"In talking to our [broadcast] partners, NFL numbers with fan engagement are incredibly strong," he said. "We’re dealing in a different environment. We’ve moving games around. Our network partners and the advertisers are pleased with where we are, and we are, too. Our numbers demonstrate that we’re putting distance between us and any other programs, sports and entertainment included."