Niyo: Can the NFL finish what it started? We’re about to find out

John Niyo
The Detroit News

JC Tretter is in the middle of it all right now. But that’s part of his job description – for both his jobs, really – and he understands it comes with the territory.

Still, for Tretter, the starting center for the Cleveland Browns, this is something he never bargained for when he ran for – and won – an election four months ago to be the new president of the NFL Players Association.

Suddenly, life in the trenches has taken on a whole new meaning, as Tretter and the union he’s helping lead – representing nearly 2,000 other players – continue negotiations with the league on a variety of health and safety issues, as well as some weighty economic concerns, with NFL teams scheduled to begin training camp this week in the middle of a pandemic.

Lions rookies report to training camp on Monday.

The league reaffirmed its plans for business-as-(un)usual Saturday, announcing in a memo to general managers and coaches that reporting dates for rookies and veterans will not change. For 30 teams, including the Lions, rookies report on Tuesday, with veterans due in camp a week later. (Kansas City and Houston – the two teams scheduled for the NFL’s Thursday night season opener on Sept. 10 – plan to start camp July 25, with rookies reporting Monday.)

But Tretter and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith both made it clear Friday that there’s plenty yet to be decided before players agree to step back on the field for the first time in 2020. And at least one team – the Miami Dolphins – reportedly has pushed back its rookie reporting date until later in the week.

Not coincidentally, Miami is one of the U.S. cities currently dealing with an alarming spike in COVID-19 cases. It’s one of the reasons the NFLPA held an “emergency” conference call late last week with league officials and team physicians from some of those hot spots, where players have voiced concerns about returning to work.

“How safe is that?” Tretter said Friday on a video conference call with members of the Pro Football Writers Association. “Our job is to hold the NFL accountable and have them answer those questions. How safe is it to start up a football season at this moment with teams in locations in this country that are going through giant spikes of this virus?

 “Football isn’t (operating) in a bubble like the NBA is. What goes on in our communities has a direct effect on how football works this year, or if it can work this year.”

‘Dangerous job’

Problem is, “if” isn’t a word the NFL likes to toss around. And while Tretter can say, “The health and safety aspect has to be taken care of for the players, first and foremost,” the truth is, Roger Goodell and the owners are the ones calling the shots here.

“The league is management,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith noted. “They have the exclusive right, just like somebody who owns a plant, regarding when it opens and when it closes.”

JC Tretter

And for months now, the league really hasn’t wavered on its plan to open the season on time. The NFL went ahead with free agency in mid-March just as other leagues – and many states – were shutting down. It then held its draft in late April and moved forward with a virtual offseason program that ended late last month.

Now comes the hard part, though. And no one needs to remind Tretter exactly what that means.

“Obviously, I’m a center, so I’m livin’ it,” Tretter said, noting that social distancing isn’t possible in his line of work. “And this time, more than any, I have a very dangerous job. Not just with what normal football is like, but with what’s going on in the world, my job especially has gotten more dangerous.

“This is going to be a battle of risk mitigation and providing guys opportunities to make safe decisions and try to stay as safe as possible. But you can pull up almost any picture from a December game and you can see how much breath is being blown back and forth being a yard away from each other. And understanding how this virus is transmitted, what’s going to be going on if sick individuals are involved?”

That’s a question no one involved can fully answer, obviously. But the league, which held its own private conference call Friday, finally revealed some of the elaborate protocols teams will be operating under when facilities open to players this week. They include everything from masks and pre-packaged meals to upgraded ventilation systems and contact-tracing bracelets.

More: Ex-Lion Darius Slay ranked No. 4 cornerback in NFL by ESPN

Each team is required to submit its own Infectious Disease Emergency Response (IDER) plan, subject to approval by the NFL and NFLPA. But there are some key elements that are still being debated, including the frequency of the COVID-19 testing that’ll be run by BioReference Laboratories, which also has partnered with the NBA and Major League Soccer.

The players want daily testing, both to limit outbreaks and to help alleviate quarantine problems created by false positives. That’ll cost tens of millions of dollars and possibly challenge lab capabilities, yet as Smith said Friday, “We don’t plan on changing that position.”

The players also want to get rid of the two remaining preseason games still on the schedule. Instead, they say medical experts agree an extended six-week training camp – with full-contact practice limited to the last couple weeks – is the best way to prevent injuries after missing the offseason.

“Every decision we make that doesn’t look at the long-term (view) of getting through a full season,” Tretter insisted, “is going to set us up for failure.”

Money matters

That, in turn, brings up the money matters still to be resolved.

The league figures to lose about a quarter of its projected $16 billion-plus in revenue if it plays the 2020 season without fans in the stands. That could mean the 2021 salary cap drops by up to $70 million per team, unless the two sides can agree on a way to spread those losses over multiple years. But what happens if the 2020 season can’t be completed? Who gets paid? And how much?

Or how many? That’s another question that needs answering, as the two sides hammer out an agreement that’ll account for the likelihood of positive tests and the inevitable roster upheaval. They’ll need less-restrictive rules for injured reserve, expanded practice squads, and so on. Smith said he doesn’t yet know of any players planning to opt-out of the season, but surely some will. And that’s another sticking point in negotiations.

So, too, are the concerns players have shared about whether everyone is truly appreciating the risks involved here. Ravens coach John Harbaugh deemed initial protocol plans last month “humanly impossible.” Meanwhile, Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians, a three-time cancer survivor, said recently, “The players, they’re going to all get sick, that’s for sure. It’s just a matter of how sick they get.”

Clearly, that’s not the plan, or the expectation. But just how much of an exaggeration will it sound like by November or December? No one can say for sure.

What Tretter will say, however, is this: “Those attitudes can’t happen. Because this is all of us in it together. And no one can just wish this away or expect this to go away. There are consequences to getting sick.”

Just ask another NFL veteran lineman, the Los Angeles Rams’ Andrew Whitworth, who joined the NFLPA call Friday to talk about his own family’s ordeal with the virus this spring. A casual lunch date turned into a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak in a matter of days for his extended family, including a father-in-law who was hospitalized. 

“It doesn’t take much,” Whitworth said. “It can spread like wildfire. … All it takes is one exposure, and that's the reality.”

One the NFL is just beginning to tackle.