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‘Valentine’s Views:’ A feeling of trepidation, rather than joy, at the return of football

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Players have reported for training camps; Now we begin to find out if the NFL can really make this work

Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In the NFL world, this is usually an exciting day, a celebratory one for football fans. Veteran players, including those with your New York Giants, are reporting for training camps around the league. That means football is back! Hooray!

Except that this is a year like any other in our lifetimes. Unless you are one of the few centenarians who was born before the 1918 flu pandemic. This is the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is raging across the U.S. like nowhere else in the world.

It’s a year where the return of sports across the landscape is to be greeted joyously because we love sports. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have this job. You wouldn’t be reading this stuff we try to inform and entertain you with. You wouldn’t spend so much time arguing anything and everything to do with your favorite teams — stuff that, by the way, doesn’t change your life in any real way.

It’s a year where the return of sports, including the NFL, has to be treated with trepidation.

Can it work?

“We have to accept that this is not going to be a perfect season,” Giants co-owner John Mara recently said.

No, it’s not.

We have already seen a myriad of ways in which the league will change for 2020. No preseason games. Regular COVID-19 testing. Virtual work followed by conditioning, walkthroughs, and unpadded practices before we finally get to real football practices in mid-August. Socially distanced locker rooms. No fans at games in many places, and severely limited numbers of fans if they are allowed at all. Changes in roster sizes and rules to accommodate for players missing weeks at a time due to the virus.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has penned a letter to NFL fans. It reads, in part:

“The NFL in 2020 will not look like other years. Players and coaches will be tested for the virus regularly, including every day for a while. Preseason games have been canceled. Everyone in the team environment must follow rigorous health and safety protocols to keep themselves and each other safe. When there is a positive test, strict regulations will be enforced to isolate and care for that individual and to contain the virus before it spreads. Even the sideline will look different. And, state and local health guidelines will help determine whether fans will attend the games. These adjustments are necessary to reduce the risk for everyone involved. ...

“Adaptability and flexibility will be needed for the foreseeable future. After all, even the best game plan changes as new challenges arise. This year’s NFL Draft is a good example that embracing change can still deliver the fun and excitement we all crave.”

Yes, we crave it. I was admittedly happy to watch a good stretch of the Yankees’ opening night victory over the Washington Nationals a few nights ago. A person can only watch so many movies or TV show re-runs, or Rachel Maddow shows, without needing some real, live entertainment.

Still, how badly do we need it?

When I spoke to Dr. Zach Binney, an epidemiologist, and Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an infectious disease expert, for the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast recently, their overarching message was that community safety and both getting and maintaining control of the virus are more important than whether or not sports are played.

“We all want sports to come back. I think professional sports have the best chance, but that has to be done very, very carefully, and again not having any interaction with the community,” Weatherhead said.

“What I can say as a physician and as a scientist is if there’s any risk to the community at all it has to shut down. Any risk of introducing more virus into a community it’s done. It’s a non-starter.”

Already in Major League Baseball, we are seeing the danger and the difficulty of trying to conduct a season, with games being canceled less than a week into the shortened season after four members of the Florida Marlins tested positive for COVID-19.

How would the NFL handle a similar situation? What is the breaking point where games have to be canceled, or the league shut down entirely for at least a couple of weeks?

Here is Dr. Binney on that topic:

“If I see three or four cases on a team in rapid succession, like in the space of a few days I’m shutting that team down because you’ve got the potential for an outbreak and those three or four could turn into 20.

“If I see those kinds of clusters on multiple teams that’s where I get to the point of maybe we should shut the whole league down for a couple of weeks.”

We are already seeing NFL players opt out of playing this season, including a stunning five from the New England Patriots. There will likely be several more op outs over the next few days.

Trepidation. Back to that word.

I think it’s the perfect word to describe how I feel about the return of football. I want it. I enjoy it and, by the way, I make my living from it. I just don’t know if it’s going to work.

I worry about the health and safety of everyone involved in the game, everyone players, coaches, and staff members go home to, and everyone community member all those people come in contact with.

With the disrupted offseason, opt-outs, illnesses, and injuries I worry about the quality of play we might see. I worry about the validity of a fractured season?. Can the NFL get to 16 games for all teams? What happens if some teams play more games than other teams?

I’m glad football, such as it is, is at least trying to return. Each day, though, is going to bring challenges and questions.

Will this work?

Nobody knows.

It’s why trepidation is the perfect word to describe how I feel as teams gather to try and have an NFL season.