Opinion: NFL faces multiple issues (including maybe liability) as it decides how to open season

Imagine this: The NFL’s season opens on time in September. Stay-at-home orders across the land have been lifted “miraculously,” as one particular power-broker might say. The stadium is packed. The home team wins. And days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s contact tracing apparatus reveals that the NFL stadium-near-you is Ground Zero for another major coronavirus outbreak that costs many lives.

Who’s liable for that?

If you thought the legal wrangling that led to settlements to fans a few years ago for a canceled Pro Football Hall of Fame Game (shoddy field) or before that, inconvenienced Super Bowl XLV patrons (unfinished seats), just think of the challenges that loom if the NFL rushes to open the gates to full houses this season and worst-case scenarios unfold.

Sure, there could be advisories warning high-risk people to stay away from stadiums, even though there have been seemingly healthy people under 50 who have succumbed to COVID-19. And no, this isn’t to suggest that NFL owners would be more liable than any other business owner if a patron catches a cold, the flu or the coronavirus while at their establishment.

Yet the NFL, the most popular and prosperous sports entity in the land, wears liability in the form of its reputation on its sleeves.

Open up too much, too early, Roger Goodell, and the NFL – which has publicly maintained that it is still planning for a full season that begins on time, while behind-the-scenes discussions have pondered contingencies – risks enormous fallout.

In other words: Are you ready for some studio football?

Will NFL football in 2020 have to be played in front of cameras at empty stadiums? (Photo: Jeff Roberson, AP)

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The NFL is weeks, maybe months, from having to make a decision of how to proceed with the upcoming season, while debate rages regarding what measures – including widespread and rapid testing – need to be in place before governors reopen their states. The NFL also gets the benefit of observing how other leagues with more pressing timelines will try coming back, against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s insistence in reopening the nation and restarting sports competition.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the experts on Trump’s coronavirus task force, endorsed a philosophy that can be linked to one of the NFL’s contingencies, during a Snapchat show this week. Fauci suggested housing college football players in hotels, testing them frequently “and just let them play the season out.”

That’s the “bio-dome” approach that I surely can’t see happening with the NFL.

Yet I can certainly see studio football – staging games in NFL stadiums without fans – as perhaps the only way to save the season. The league's contingencies include playing a truncated season – maybe 12 games, maybe 14 rather than the 16-game regular-season slate. But would that account for, say, California (home of the defending NFC champion 49ers plus the Rams and Chargers, soon-to-be-SoFi Stadium hosts) prohibiting large gatherings while Florida allows it?

Interestingly, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins this week said it would be “refreshing” to play games while not in front of fans amid the typical NFL stadium environment. Strange word. And the polar opposite of the sentiment that NBA megastar LeBron James expressed a few weeks ago in stating that he didn’t want to pay without fans. Cousins' point, though, was that players can easily adapt to an environment without fans – kind of like what happens on a regular basis on the practice field.

For decades, the NFL has been considered “a TV sport” with probably more than 90% of NFL fans having never actually attended a game. You know, the traffic, the ticket costs, the convenience – replays at Jerry World are just as good or better than the ones in your living room. But it’s tough to recreate the in-house bathroom experience … unless you lease a suite.

Well, in NFL101 – the season after the NFL100 campaign that paid homage to the rich history, traditions and even leather helmets – we could get a semblance of what the league's product will resemble in the future.

Only that the future is now, as George Allen used to say.

The virtual draft next week, with Goodell announcing picks from his basement (the presumably plush basement of his mansion) could be merely a warm-up act for a TV-only season that might be on the horizon.

The ratings for the draft next week should go through the roof, especially when considering that each of the past two drafts broke viewership records. With the current dearth of sports – Thursday was Day 36 without sports – the “live” draft will be a rare live event.

Meanwhile, the PGA Tour on Thursday announced that it will resume competition in mid-June with the Charles Schwab Challenge at The Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas – without spectators. Barring other developments (such as Major League Baseball adopting a possible plan to play in Arizona and Florida, or the NBA and NHL resuming their seasons in some fashion), the men’s golf circuit could become the first to re-start after the pandemic interruptions.

And it might also provide a harbinger for how the NFL’s season will need to be consumed, attracting huge TV numbers, I’d suspect … while a vaccine for coronavirus is still in development.

Of course, the league will lean on advice from medical experts as it proceeds toward the coming season. Yet it’s a given that to re-open at all – and that would include reopening team headquarters, minicamps, training camp – widespread and rapid coronavirus testing needs to be in place.

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