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Marlins outbreak sobering, scary for NFL teams on eve of camp

Dressed in Miami blue and black, the Ghost of Coronavirus Yet to Come showed the NFL the worst-case scenario.

NFL training camp begins Tuesday for veterans.
NFL training camp begins Tuesday for veterans.
Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

On the eve of training camp, the NFL was visited Monday by its worst nightmare. Dressed in Marlins blue and black, the Ghost of Coronavirus Yet to Come showed the worst-case scenario: a season on the brink of cancellation before it really gets started.

At least 17 Marlins players and coaches have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to national reports. It’s a full-blown outbreak, after only three games.

Major League Baseball postponed the Marlins’ games Monday and Tuesday against the Orioles. The Phillies-Yankees games Monday and Tuesday also were called off because the Phillies had hosted the Marlins for three games. Baseball will be play-the-Lotto lucky if that’s the only damage done. A growing crisis would lead to the cancellation of the season.

Even in the best of circumstances, the virus presents a new reality that baseball must cope with every day. White Sox manager Rick Renteria woke up with a cough and nasal congestion Monday, went to a Cleveland hospital for tests and, out of caution, stayed away from the ballpark. He tested negative for COVID-19 and is expected to be back with the team Tuesday.

Whether the Marlins’ outbreak becomes an inflection point, it’s a sobering reminder for the NFL — the only league to forge full steam ahead in the face of the virus. It should give NFL players pause, too.

Tuesday marks the official start of training camp. In any other year, the Bears’ biggest concern would be their quarterback battle, or a kicking derby, or whether Tarik Cohen speeding into camp in a race car portended confidence or cockiness.

This year, the biggest story will be whether players can emerge healthy enough to try to make the regular season work. (Defensive lineman Eddie Goldman decided not to risk it, choosing to opt out of the 2020 season.)

The details beyond that — Can the NFL shorten the season if there’s an outbreak? Would it postpone the Super Bowl in order to play all 16 games? What happens if an entire offensive line tests positive two hours before kickoff? — are only hypotheticals without a disaster-free preseason.

Across sports, preseason bubble environments seem to be working. The NHL said Monday that between July 18 and 25, more than 800 players were given a total of 4,256 coronavirus tests. There were zero positives. From July 13 to 20, zero NBA players holed up at its Disney World campus in Florida tested positive.

But unless NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wants to annex New Zealand in the next 24 hours, the NFL won’t have the luxury of isolating itself the way those other two leagues have. Rather, the NFL will have to do what MLB attempted: contain the virus while still letting players go home — and to grocery stores, gas stations and, short of league-mandated stay-aways, anywhere else.

Baseball showed that staying healthy in your own facility is the easy part; only nine players tested positive in the two weeks leading into Monday. But even that’s not foolproof. On Monday, the Vikings said head trainer and infection control officer Eric Sugarman, the man in charge of the team’s coronavirus prevention program, tested positive.

Later in the day, NFL teams put a total of 18 players on the new reserve/COVID-19 list, set aside for those infected or quarantining after being in contact with someone sick. Among them was Bears running back Artavis Pierce, an undrafted free agent who led Oregon State with 873 rushing yards last year. Bears rookies began intake testing last week. The Vikings put four players, including first-round pick Justin Jefferson, on the list.

Also Monday, the NFL Players Association approved the Bears’ infectious disease emergency plan, which sets forth team protocols for handling an outbreak. Starting Tuesday Bears veterans will begin taking a series of coronavirus tests as a condition of being allowed inside team facilities. In the interim, they will be able to attend virtual team meetings, including a mandatory coronavirus meeting. Eventually, players will begin strength and conditioning work and build up to mid-August practices.

Once practice begins, it will offer its own unique problems. The first is sheer numbers. NFL rosters will be down to 80 players each — or 20 more than the largest baseball team during summer camp — by mid-August. Until last week, the Bears’ tight ends room alone had more players than a big-league baseball lineup.

The second problem is more alarming: contact. For all the NFL’s quiet confidence in the face of the coronavirus, it still has not properly explained how someone is expected to block, say, Akiem Hicks during practice without worrying about breathing, bleeding, spitting or sweating on him.

Until then, football players are watching to see how — or if — MLB tamps down the outbreak.

“Very curious to see how this is handled,” Bears receiver Allen Robinson tweeted.

The NFL knows the stakes. In an open letter to fans, Goodell said the coronavirus “will continue to present a major challenge to nearly every area of American life — football is no exception.” He said adaptability and flexibility will be needed going forward.

“Now let’s play football,” he wrote.

If only it were that easy.