How the NFL squandered its coronavirus head start

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack and the NFL’s biggest stars began a social-media blitz around noon Sunday, lobbying for owners to agree to coronavirus protocols with the start of training camp approaching like a blitzing pass rusher.

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Khalil Mack makes a tackle against the 49ers in 2018.

AP Photos

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack and the NFL’s biggest stars began a social-media blitz around noon Sunday, lobbying for owners to agree to coronavirus protocols with the start of training camp approaching like a blitzing pass rusher.

“NFL, please address health and safety concerns so we can play football this year! #itsonlyright #cantwait,” Mack wrote on Twitter.

The coordinated push by the NFL Players Association tried to re-create baseball’s viral moment six weeks ago, when MLB Players Association head Tony Clark said to “tell us when and where.” Clark’s statement was reiterated and retweeted by players across the sport. It generated momentum but yielded limited results. Rather than agree to a deal with baseball’s owners, the union reserved the right to file a grievance and let the commissioner declare the start of the season. On Sunday night, the Cubs and White Sox played the first major sports exhibition in the city since March.

Pro football, meanwhile, was supposed to be the sport with time on its side. The coronavirus lockdown began the month after the Super Bowl and six months before the start of the regular season.

That time has been squandered.

The NFL, the only one of America’s four major sports leagues to not change its regular-season schedule because of the virus, still hasn’t figured out the basics. And its first deadline looms Monday. 

Even if the sides reach a deal before then — and they are motivated to try — one wonders why an agreement had to be so difficult. Infection rates have surged across the country, making the coronavirus more intimidating in many NFL markets than it was months ago. But that shouldn’t have prevented agreement on economic, medical and structural issues.

The union wants its players to be tested daily, while the owners prefer every other day. As of Friday, 65 NFL players had tested positive at some point this offseason for the virus, the union said.

A joint medical committee formed by the league and the union recommended a longer training-camp acclimation period to make up for the lack of team-driven offseason workouts, but the sides can’t agree on how that suggestion should be implemented. The union refused to report to training camp early and instead wants all preseason games canceled to allow for the acclimation. The owners want two preseason games.

Also at issue are details surrounding an opt-out clause for players. The union said Friday that no players have formally said they’ll stay home, but the MLB and NBA restarts have proved that it’s only a matter of time. Complicating matters: Unlike MLB and NBA players, football players don’t have guaranteed contracts.

The collective-bargaining agreement dictates that players must report to training camp July 28. Rookies can arrive Tuesday, quarterbacks and injured players Thursday.

The Texans and Super Bowl champion Chiefs can welcome rookies Monday, though, because they’re playing in the regular-season opener on a Thursday night. That’s the league’s first deadline and the impetus for negotiations in private and, with a #wewanttoplay hashtag, in the court of public opinion.

Players will report. If the sides haven’t agreed on their issues by Monday, the union could attempt to file a grievance for unsafe work conditions.

Sunday featured some saber-rattling. Sam Acho, the former Bears linebacker and current NFLPA vice president, tweeted the NFL “waited until the last minute and ignored the recommendations of experts.” Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who tweeted that he was concerned because his wife is pregnant and the league still has “no clear plan on player health and family safety.”

NFLPA president J.C. Tretter, the Browns center, said the league “needs to listen to our union and adopt the experts’ recommendations.”

The sides are negotiating. The clock is ticking. 

And fans are wondering why, despite a four-month head start, it has to come down to the wire.

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