The debate over the safety of football amid the pandemic is intensifying

With right precautions, football may be safer than commonly thought

Jeff Diamond
July 09, 2020 - 7:40 pm

Ethan Miller / Getty Images


With right precautions, football may be safer than commonly thought

By Jeff Diamond, former Vikings GM who co-hosted Monday Night Purple and Purple Sunday Postgame last season on News Talk 830 WCCO along with WCCO’s NFL Draft coverage.

With the projected start of NFL training camps now less than three weeks away, the debate over the safety of football amid the pandemic is intensifying. The NFL and the NFL Players Association are in the midst of negotiations on safety protocols, the preseason schedule (two games or none) and other issues.

A common refrain permeating among some presumed health experts, the NFLPA leadership and repeated in the media is that football players are the most susceptible to coronavirus infection due to the heavy contact nature of the sport.

I’m not so sure about that line of thinking. I’m not a scientific expert but I believe with the right precautions, especially in regard to use of face shields and covering the body with equipment and padding, football can be made safer than many sports where players’ faces and bodies are less covered.

In particular, think about basketball and NBA players who are planning to resume their 2019-2020 season in a supposed bubble in Orlando beginning July 30 (and WNBA teams will start their season in late July). And think about the uniforms that cover half of the players’ bodies and the lack of face protection for the basketball players. Pro basketball has plenty of contact, with sweaty players constantly leaning on each other during play and fouls called regularly from excessive contact. Sweat and spit droplets are flying all over the court.

Compare the hoopsters to NFL players who can be clothed from head to toe with uniforms and padding while playing with gloves and face shields similar to medical professionals that can be attached to their helmets. The word is the NFL wants to require players to wear these face shields and they are working hard to provide new, high tech devices. But there is push back from the players’ union on behalf of some players who believe this would hinder their breathing, vision and communicating on the field.

Quarterbacks are likely concerned their signal calling may be muffled by a full face shield. So are centers who make the line calls and linebackers who relay the defensive calls from the coaches as well as defensive backs who must communicate with each other in pass coverage. Surely a technologically savvy league like the NFL can create speakers in the helmets that will amplify voices for these signal callers. And I believe players can get used to the breathing and vision effects on face shields.

Isn’t staying healthy worth these possible inconveniences for one season until covid is under control? And isn’t the league justified in mandating the use of face shields in an effort to protect players from getting infected and infecting others?

The point is the capability is there for football players to be protected better than basketball players or soccer players who also have much of their skin exposed and lots of contact in their games. Even baseball players who appear to be in a safer sport with minimal contact have their faces uncovered. Football—and hockey under the same premise of fully uniformed and face shielded players—clearly can better protect their players in terms of total body and face coverage.

Then add in the factor of football teams—NFL, college and high school--playing once a week as opposed to the NBA’s usual three to four times per week or at least twice per week for college and high school basketball players. And the MLB players will be competing almost every day when they begin their 60 game schedule plus playoffs and traveling a lot more than players in other team sports.

Football players will basically be on the road for eight regular season games plus a possible preseason game. They also can potentially be tested multiple times during a week and put in quarantine until they have two negative covid tests without missing any games.

So why is NFLPA President and Browns center JC Tretter posting this statement on the NFLPA’s website: “More so than any other sport, the game of football is the perfect storm for virus transmission. There are protections, both short and long term, that must be agreed upon before we can safely return to work. The NFLPA will be diligent as we demand that the NFL provide us the safest workplace possible.”

I certainly agree with Tretter that every safeguard should be put in place to protect the players. And I realize he is trying to maximize the NFLPA’s negotiating position. But Tretter--like Dr. Anthony Fauci in his recent statements—should not paint a picture that this can’t be managed if handled correctly with the right precautions in place.

Yes, the NFL teams will not operate in an Orlando-like bubble that the NBA, WNBA and MLS are in. But who wants to be working in virus-spiking Florida these days?

As is the case with any NFL league or team executive, I worry about teams traveling, staying in hotels and playing in stadiums that may be partially filled with fans and game-day workers. I worry about young players not wanting to be cooped up and trying to escape to local bars and restaurants where they could get infected and pass it along to a bunch of teammates, coaches and staff. I know the rosters for football teams are much larger than other sports so odds are there will be more than a few positive covid tests.

It’s going to be quite the challenge. But until play begins and we see how things unfold in all sports, I don’t buy the theory that football is the toughest sport to play during the pandemic.

Around the NFL Observations:

1.Patrick Mahomes’ new contract he signed this week is a good example of why it’s important to look past the total published amount and examine the details. The headlines screamed that Mahomes is now the highest paid athlete in the sports world with his 10 year, $450 million extension. The truth is time will tell if he earns this maximum amount since it’s not fully guaranteed like baseball player Mike Trout’s 12-year, $426.5 million contract he signed last year with the Angels. It’s possible Mahomes could wind up with a 6 year, $180 million deal which is certainly not chump change but would fall short of Russell Wilson’s $35 million per year extension signed last year.

Mahomes also has two years remaining (for $27 million total) on his rookie contract with the Chiefs so his total compensation under this extension is potentially $477 million over 12 years and incentives can pull it over $500 million. But he was guaranteed $63 million at signing (relatively low compared to other top QB deals) and has $140 million in total guarantees. His signing bonus of $10 million is very team-friendly as it gives the Chiefs a cap number of $5.3 million this season when the Super Bowl champs are tight against the cap.

It’s likely that Mahomes’ contract will be restructured several times over the life of the deal in order to help the Chiefs cap-wise and keep Mahomes at or near the top of the quarterback pay scale.

Now it will be interesting to see where Dak Prescott’s contract goes from here. The Cowboys have until next Wednesday to sign him to a long term deal or Prescott will play under the $31 million franchise tag this season. Houston’s Deshaun Watson also is seeking an extension as he like Mahomes just finished his third season.

From the Vikings standpoint, Kirk Cousins’ $32 million per year over the next three seasons is still top 10 among QBs but not the shocker it was when he received his $84 million fully guaranteed contract in 2018.  

Jeff Diamond was the NFL Executive of the Year in 1998 after the Vikings' 15-1 season. He also is former president of the Tennessee Titans. He does sports/business consulting, media and speaking work including corporate and college speaking on Negotiation, Management, Leadership and Sports Business--contact him at diamondj4@comcast receiver off

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