Baseball launches what is laughingly referred to as its regular season this week. All that’s missing is a calliope and merry-go-round.
This COVID-19 version of Our Game is a sideshow, a 60-game sprint to the finish line with cardboard cutouts posing as fans and piped in crowd noise, sort of like the canned laughter television uses in situation comedies.
The Toronto Blue Jays are being banished to Buffalo because Canada fears players coming over the border carrying the virus. Football players understand the concern, which has created something of a crisis for the NFL.
With players beginning to report and training camps officially opening next Tuesday, this should be an upbeat time in the NFL. But in the great tradition of management vs. workers, the two sides are at odds about health and safety issues, understandable with the country struggling through a pandemic.
In a collision sport where blocking and tackling are central to the game, and the virus hovering around the action, players have expressed understandable concern. They want virus testing every day. The league’s medical experts say testing every other day would be sufficient. The league has offered cutting the exhibition schedule from four games to two. The players prefer none.
There are other issues, too, enough to keep the start of training camp in doubt. With baseball underway, it is not a good look for the NFL to be at odds with its work force.
J.C. Tretter of the Cleveland Browns is president of the NFL Players Association. In a videoconference with reporters last week, he explained the players’ position. “Every decision we make thus year has to be made through a medical lens,’’ he said.
That sounds sensible given the situation in the country with the coronavirus spreading, seemingly uncontrolled. Tretter is a center, positioned in the middle of the action, surrounded by players on each side and in front of him. He knows something about fierce contact up close and personal, something baseball, by the nature of the game, can avoid. He knows about players breathing hard across the line from each other. It concerns him. And it should.
There is no way to make football safer. It is the nature of the game. Given that reality, the players are expressing their concern. They want to play but they want to play safely. That’s certainly understandable.
A number of prominent players blitzed the Internet with tweets last weekend, expressing their concerns. Drew Brees was rather blunt. “We need football! We need sports! We need hope! The NFL’s unwillingness to follow the recommendations of their own medical experts will prevent that. If the NFL doesn’t do their part to keep players healthy there is no football in 2020. It’s that simple. Get it done @NFL.’’
There are dark clouds on the horizon. Under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, The league has the right to impose reporting dates and can fine players who don’t show up. For its part, the union can file a grievance arguing the league is not providing a safe work environment.
All things considered, cardboard cutouts of fans and fake crowd noise might not be such a bad option after all.