Proposed MLB safety protocols can be framework for NFL and other sports to operate under this season

Jeff Diamond
May 26, 2020 - 8:56 am
Target Field

As a former NFL team exec who coordinated training camp, team travel and the team’s practice facility early in my career, I’ve been reading with interest the safety protocols Major League Baseball is proposing for the likely return to practice and play in the coming weeks—hopefully as soon as possible at least without fans in the stands at first.

MLB’s 67-page document on how the game should operate amid a hopefully easing pandemic is a bit over the top especially considering baseball is one of the easiest sports in which to practice social distancing (other than the batter, catcher and home plate umpire and perhaps balls and strikes can be called electronically and the catcher can crouch a little further from the batter?). 

They’ve been playing pro baseball in South Korea for several weeks and the PGA Tour is gearing up in the next few weeks—both without fans in attendance initially--so it seems as if the Twins should be able to hit the field any day now to begin defense of their AL Central title. And that will lead to other sports opening up gradually with the NBA, NHL and MLS soon to follow.

The NFL’s offseason program for teams such as the Vikings has been forced to become virtual with online classroom sessions and workouts coordinated by the strength and conditioning staff. But the NFL is fortunate to have almost 10 weeks before training camps are due to open in late July and close to four months before the regular season is scheduled to begin with the Vikings hosting the Packers on September 13.

By then, we’ll know how effective MLB’s safety protocols have been and if fans are back in the stands or sports are a TV-only event until COVID-19 eases further.

Here are some of the MLB ideas—some good, some difficult to manage-- that for the most part are likely for other sports including NFL and college football to follow (although the college football season is in question if college campuses are not open by fall):

  • Players and coaches along with support staff would have their temperatures taken at least twice a day…certainly a smart idea.
  • Non-participants would be required to wear masks and sit six feet apart whether in the dugout or the stands if no fans are there or perhaps an area is roped off behind the dugout. This will be harder in football where coaches are constantly talking with players, looking at tablets with them and critiquing when they are not in the game. An advantage for football players is they wear helmets and can easily add a face shield as many already do. But again, it’s not easy to talk with a coach through a face shield.
  • Players requested to wash or sanitize their hands after every half-inning. Again, that’s common sense.
  • Changing the ball regularly, as in tossing out baseballs after each time one is put in play. That’s easier for baseball as balls leave the parks regularly via foul balls and home runs (especially with the Twins’ record-setting Bomba Squad). Not so easy with football where all players except quarterbacks should be required to wear gloves which most of them already do. The footballs can and will be sanitized after every series. And in all sports, everyone must be constantly reminded not to touch their face and to have hand sanitizer handy.
  • No high-fives, fist bumps, hugging, spitting, chewing tobacco (a disgusting habit to avoid) and sunflower seeds. It will be interesting to watch how these regulations are enforced in the heat of the moment and the excitement of a game-winning play.
  • No use of therapy pools, saunas or steam rooms which I think is a problem for players rehabbing injuries. It may be time-consuming but what makes sense would be to allow players to use therapy pools and have thorough cleanings take place between player usage. And then encourage players to sit in their tubs at home after practices and games.
  • MLB doesn’t want players to take postgame or post-practice showers at the stadium or facility and have these showers take place at home or the team hotel if on the road. I think that’s a bit extreme and would make for a smelly ride home or to the hotel. As a player, I’d prefer to wear a mask and flip flops into the team shower room and have a limited number of players allowed to shower at a time so there’s social distancing.
  • No mascots or ball boys in baseball and that could extend to mascots and cheerleaders in football. Even if we’re talking TV-only with no fans at first, I don’t see the harm in having these elements as part of our sporting events since they add to the game presentation experience and can be easily monitored on social distancing.
  • MLB proposes that players not be allowed to leave hotels on the road without approval. Good luck enforcing that especially with baseball players on a 10-day road trip hitting several cities. I don’t see the player unions buying into a sequestering policy on the road in any sport although it’s easiest in football when teams fly into a road city the day before a game and leave immediately following the game.

In general, football is the toughest sport to social distance because of the much larger rosters and the nature of the game with huddles and one-on-one blocking and tackling so it will be an interesting dynamic to watch unfold.

Other areas that I’ll be interested to hear about include how teams handle travel. Players and most team personnel already sit every other seat on team charter flights and they certainly will be asked to wear face masks in-flight (will all players comply?). Teams will need more buses to allow players, coaches and staff to sit one per row and again with face masks. Everyone will need a personal bottle of hand sanitizer to use often.

Will teams allow media into their locker rooms at team facilities and stadiums to interview players and coaches after practices and games? Some players would love to not have to face the media daily and post-game but team execs know that media coverage is such an important part of connecting the players and coaches to the fans and increasing interest in the game (which translates into more ticket sales and higher TV ratings fueling increased broadcast rights fees, which are the backbone of NFL economics and other sports to a lesser extent).

I think in-person interviews would be fine with temperature screening for all media in attendance but there will likely be more virtual press conferences at first.

Whew, it’s going to be a strange time in the sports world as the practices and games return but it beats the alternative for fans who miss the action, for team owners losing a ton of revenue and for the players, coaches and staff including all the ushers, concessions workers and security personnel who want and need their paychecks. Not to mention federal, state and city governments who are missing sales tax payments from sports teams and income tax funding as a result of the entire sports industry heading back to work.

Hopefully everything is back to normal in every sense as soon as possible.

Around the NFL Observations:

1. Eight NFL teams have begun the process of reopening their facilities which is a good sign. The Cowboys, Falcons, Steelers, Texans, Colts, Cardinals, Chiefs and Bengals reopened in accordance with criteria established by the NFL and in compliance with governing state and local regulations. Temperatures were taken at the door and masks are required unless in a closed office in Atlanta and likely all the other spots thus far. No coaches or players are allowed into team facilities at this stage except for players undergoing injury rehab. I expect the Vikings to join this list of teams when they reopen their Eagan headquarters in the next couple weeks with a limited number of employees initially. 

2. Things are pretty quiet on the player acquisition front at this stage of the offseason with the draft completed but there are still lots of unsigned free agents on the market who will be added to rosters in the coming months leading up to the hopeful start of training camps.

Among the best players on this list of available vets are ex-Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, former Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, former Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen and cornerback Logan Ryan who most recently played for Tennessee. Last year’s Vikings starter at left guard—Josh Kline—also remains unsigned and could be a target for the Vikings on a bargain deal (which is less likely in Griffen’s case as his price tag is higher and the Vikings are tight against the salary cap).   

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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