By Arnie Leshin
It only takes one to sink the ship, or in this case, bust the bubble.
But that’s the situation the National Football League finds itself in after taking a cue from the National Basketball Association and constructing what it calls a “virtual football bubble.”
There’s no doubt the issue here is that the players can leave the virtual bubble to go home each day, that’s the path it lays out. But there’s also fear that the potential exposure to the coronavirus pandemic faced by NFL personnel outside the team environment has some health experts and other observers concerned of the professional football players’ season being marred by the same sorts of outbreaks that have plagued Major League Baseball this summer.
MLB does not have a bubble, but the NFL has decided to tackle it, although some of its teams are taking it a step further by providing players, coaches and staffers with the option of staying in a hotel while away from the facility. They believe this would reduce the risks of infection through interaction with the outside world.
Although this is not a mandatory element of the NFL’s protocols, it is a voluntary step that enhance the league’s chances of staging an uninterrupted campaign.
The consensus is that the clubs have had a lot of very creative ideas and have seen a variety of different innovations from how they practice to how they conduct meetings to the overall conduct of their day.
Said Allen Siils, the NFL’s chief medical officer: “I believe we will continue to see that, and I think those are all positive developments, and that tells me that our players, coaches, and other staff members of all the organizations are thinking creatively about how they can mitigate risk for everyone that’s involved. And so we certainly encourage that thinking.”
The New Orleans Saints plan to use four floors of the Loews New Orleans Hotel. The team estimates that about 150 of 189 players are staying there during training camp. But a team spokesman said no other guests are staying at the hotel.
Then there’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and head coach Bruce Arians informed reporters that his team has some players “sequestered” in a hotel.
“We can’t force the guys to go,” Arians said, “so it’s up to them. We’ll obviously stay there the night before home games like we always do. We also talked about having a commitment to each other, and that it’s going to take a hell of a commitment from everybody.”
A person familiar with the union’s views said that the NFL Players Association supports the arrangements.
The NFL opted against a single-site bubble set-up as the NBA is doing near Orlando, Fla., but It does have
teams gathered at a small number of hub cities, same as the National Hockey League is doing in two Canadian venues. But such measures were not considered feasibly by the NFL given the length of its season.
Sills said that a bubble alone doesn’t keep us safe if everyone is not complying with all the other elements of risk mitigation. And so, he added, it’s about wearing masks and face covering, also it’s about keeping physical distance, hand hygiene, plus all about symptom reporting.
NFL players are being tested daily in the early stages of training camp. Errors, though, have occurred in testings, with Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford originally testing positive, but later called a false positive. Last week, the NFL declined to confirm that 56 players had tested positive between the July 21 opening of training camps and Aug. 5.
“We’ll continue to learn from each of these environments, and from each of these experiences,” Sills said. “But we are just emphasizing that we’ve described the team environments a virtual football bubble, meaning they are all together obviously under our protocol during the large chunk of the day.”
He added that the NFL must be flexible and not rule out any scenarios, that no matter the setup, the level of compliance by participants with safety measures will determine the league’s success.
Another pro sport, another bubble, but far different than the one the NCAA has in determining its national tournament’s final field.