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NFL chief medical officer says broad testing required for league to open

The NFL has sounded confident about an on-time start to the 2020 season. Now the league’s chief medical officer appears to be preparing people for a potential delay.

General view of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the game between the Arizona Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams on December 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The NFL has publicly emphasized it plans on starting its 2020 season on time this fall, but there is still much to be sorted out. The league has delayed the start of team offseason workout programs indefinitely, but the NFL Draft is happening on schedule and league officials say the plan is for an on-time start this fall.

Amidst all this, the NFL’s chief medical officer, Dr. Allen Sills, appears to be trying to pump the brakes a little bit. NFL.com reporter Judy Battista interviewed Dr. Sills and he offered a little bit of caution. He said that there are no absolutes with facts still coming in.

“I would say that’s everyone’s hope, that we are in a position to do that,” Sills added. “But the reality is none of us know those facts for certain right now. We hope and pray for the best and prepare for the worst, realizing that is one potential outcome that we will be back fully in business playing games as normal in front of fans on schedule. But it’s certainly not the only outcome. And I think what was implied there was to say we are not at a point where we are saying that is absolutely not going to happen so we should continue our planning and preparations as if we’re going to be able to do that. But obviously we’re going to have to evaluate that along the way. And follow what the recommendations are from public health officials and from our infectious disease experts and others.”

Dr. Sills thinks that there will need to be widespread testing with quick results before the league can have a better idea of when it can restart. There would need to be testing of all players and many team personnel, and with a likely need for frequent testing, that kind of bandwidth is not yet available. Additionally, Dr. Sills mentioned the competitive balance issue where some locations would allow for a facility to re-open while other locations would not.

Considering the NFL’s public stance just a few days ago, it is possible they wanted to get this out to lay the groundwork for a potential delay. The league told media the 2020 regular season schedule would be released by May 9th. They could come up with a full 17-week schedule, but they also likely need to have a truncated schedule for a potential delay.

There is talk of cases peaking in late April and into May, but that seems to be a fluid projection to some degree. There is a decent chance that by May 9th we still don’t have a firm answer on how much longer social distancing will be needed. That’s fine for the league’s timeline for now, but at some point they have to decide when they can get players back in for workouts. You can just start playing football without time to get players back in shape after extensive missed time, so any start date will have to factor that in as well.

It’s possible the pandemic peaks sooner than later and the country does enough to move past it by the summer. But for the time being, it’s still unpredictable. Until there is a firmer handle on the pandemic in the United States, any predictions are guess-work at best.