BOSTON (CBS) — Last week was a fun one for the NFL and for football fans. The release of the 2020 schedule offered the opportunity to escape the coronavirus pandemic and look ahead to better, more exciting days.
That being said, everybody understood when the schedule was released that it may not play out the way the NFL plans. The virus is too unpredictable to make any concrete, solid plans.
So to help get an idea of just how realistic or unrealistic the idea of NFL action taking place in the fall will be, NBC Sports’ Peter King spoke to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases. Fauci was neither optimistic nor pessimistic with regard to the outlook for the NFL this coming fall. He simply laid out the facts, which present a potentially precarious picture.
With the presumption that tests are easily and readily available by August, Fauci said that it is possible for players who test negative to play football — and some fans may even be able to attend.
“I think it’s feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium,” Fauci told King. “Is it guaranteed? No way. … There will be virus out there and you will know your players are negative at the time they step onto the field. You’re not endangering. … Also, if the virus is so low that even in the general community the risk is low, then I could see filling a third of the stadium or half the stadium so people could be six feet apart. I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection.”
For that to happen, though, progress needs to be made. Fauci said that if the NFL season were beginning right now, it simply could not happen.
“Right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season — it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do,” Fauci explained. “But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now.”
That being said, Fauci laid out two issues that figure to be major hurdles for the NFL — and all other sports leagues, really. First, if at any point multiple players test positive for COVID-19, a quarantine of all the people who came into contact with those players will be necessary. Secondly, the inherent nature of body-to-body contact in sports lends itself to the virus spreading.
“This is a respiratory virus, so it’s going to be spread by shedding virus,” Fauci told King. “The problem with virus shedding is that if I have it in my nasal pharynx, and it sheds and I wipe my hand against my nose — now it’s on my hand. You see, then I touch my chest or my thigh, then it’s on my chest or my thigh for at least a few hours. Sweat as such won’t transmit it. But if people are in such close contact as football players are on every single play, then that’s the perfect set up for spreading. I would think that if there is an infected football player on the field — a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is — as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person. If you really want to be in a situation where you want to be absolutely certain, you’d test all the players before the game. And you say, Those who are infected: Sorry, you’re sidelined. Those who are free: Get in there and play.”
Fauci added: “To be 100 percent sure, you’ve got to test every day. But that’s not practical and that’s never going to happen. But you can diminish dramatically by testing everybody Saturday night, Sunday morning, and say OK, only negative players play.”
Fauci said that “there is virtually no chance [the virus] will be eradicated” over the summer, and thus, it will return in the fall.
“It will be entirely dependent on the effectiveness with which we as a society respond to the inevitable outbreak that will occur,” Fauci said of the fall. “Even if the virus goes down dramatically in June and July and August, as the virus starts returning in the fall, it would be in my mind, shame on us if we don’t have in place all of the mechanisms to prevent it from blowing up again. In other words, enough testing to test everybody that needs to be tested. Enough testing so that when someone gets infected, you could immediately do contact tracing and isolation to prevent the infection from going to a couple of infections to hundreds of infections. That’s how you control an outbreak. So, practically speaking, the success or failure, the ability or not, to actually have a football season is going to depend on just on what I said … but what I’m really saying is it’s unpredictable depending upon how we respond in the fall.”
Asked directly if teams would have to pull off a star player — Patrick Mahomes, for example — if he tested positive, Fauci didn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely, absolutely. It would be malpractice in medicine to put him on the field, absolutely,” Fauci said.
Again, it wasn’t a particularly optimistic or pessimistic view of what can happen with the NFL this fall. It was merely a fairly clear picture that an NFL season in 2020 is possible yet precarious.