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What can the NFL learn from the MLB and NBA when it comes to COVID-19?

The NFL has the small advantage of learning what does and doesn’t work from two other professional leagues.

Fenway Park During Coronavirus Pandemic Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Optimistically or foolishly, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are about to start and re-start seasons, respectively. For MLB, it’ll be a 60 game season starting on July 23 or 24, and for NBA it’ll be a 22 game slate being played exclusively at empty stadiums at Disney World, with no fans in attendance. Both will be weird, abbreviated, and frankly have a decent chance of falling apart if enough players and team staff get COVID-19.

As I write this, there are 2.39 million confirmed cases in the United States, with north of 123,000 deaths. Yesterday, the number of new cases hit its highest point since April 24, nearly two full months ago, which indicates that a combination of more robust testing and an increasingly cavalier attitude toward wearing masks and social distancing is going to continue to drive those numbers up. What that means for sports—to say nothing of everyday life—is not immediately clear, but MLB and the NBA are about to find out.

The NFL will be watching very closely. The only league with the luxury of a fall start time, our favorite league and our Falcons are going to have to figure out how to keep cases low and whether they’re going to play in front of any fans at all, how they’ll handle team travel and team meetings, and a million other factors we’re not even thinking of yet. Some of the challenges the NBA and MLB are about to face won’t be relevant to the NFL, but the bigger picture questions about attendance and team proximity will be partially answered by what happens with the leagues that are re-starting this summer.

Here’s a by no means exhaustive list of what the NFL might be looking for from these other two leagues:

  • Who bows out. Some players simply won’t be comfortable playing, with Avery Bradley from the Lakers being one such player who has already decided to walk away, given that he has a young child with respiratory issues. He will not be alone, but how heavy will the hit be to talent in the NBA and MLB? That may foreshadow how many players choose not to suit up for the NFL this fall.
  • How attendance works. The NBA is playing in front of zero fans, but I’m not 100% clear on what MLB will do yet. If there are limited numbers of fans allowed to attend, who shows up, do they manage to avoid exposure to COVID-19, and what does that do to a team’s revenue picture? If there are no fans, are teams finding other ways to make up revenue through merchandise and the like, or is this just going to be a year where teams and leagues bleed money?
  • What happens when someone gets sick. This is probably the biggest one. If a player gets sick after being on the court or on the field, how robust are the testing protocols for everyone who came in contact with that player? Who then has to sit out, for how long, and how does the league determine when they can come back? What happens if it sweeps through an entire team?

There are many, many more considerations here, but the NFL has the luxury of a little time to watch and learn from two leagues trying desperately to make a go of it on a limited basis. The lessons they learn here might be the difference between having an NFL season and not having one.