The NFL kicks off its new season shrouded in trepidation on Thursday as America’s most popular sport grapples with the new realities of life in the age of COVID-19.
An array of carefully crafted safety protocols designed to mitigate the threat of coronavirus face their first serious test when the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans.
It marks the start of a five-month campaign that is scheduled to culminate with the Super Bowl next February in Tampa, Florida, one of the states worst affected by the pandemic which has claimed around 190,000 American lives.
Unlike sports such as basketball and ice hockey, which returned to play by basing multiple teams in a single location, the NFL season is taking place with teams playing at their home stadiums.
For the most part, those stadiums will be empty. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 26 say games will take place without spectators. Six teams, including the Chiefs, say they will allow a limited number of fans into each game.
COVID-19 has already upended parts of the NFL calendar.
The NFL Draft due to take place in Las Vegas in April was cancelled and conducted virtually, while the entire slate of pre-season games due to start in August was also scrapped.
Players meanwhile have been undergoing daily COVID-19 testing at pre-season training camps which have seen squads operate in reconfigured locker rooms to allow for social distancing between team-mates.
– Encouraging results –
So far the safety measures put in place have yielded encouraging results. No team has suffered a major outbreak of COVID-19.
In its most recent set of test results covering the period August 30-September 5, out of 44,510 tests given to 8,349 players and personnel, only eight came back positive.
“We have been really fortunate,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on a conference call with reporters.
“The cases of COVID-19 are very low across the league. It is a testament to the plans but most importantly to the diligence to the players, the teams and their staffs.
“I think the big thing for us, again, is not to get comfortable. The protocols are working. But we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty here. This is a pandemic that we’re still learning about.”
The NFL’s D-Day arrives this week, however, when the logistical complexities of safely moving small armies of players and support staff all around the country are put to the test for the first time.
Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta, is optimistic that protocols which have been successful in NFL training camps will be effective on the road.
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SOURCE: AFP, Rob Woollard