America's most popular spectator sport is back. Albeit with fewer spectators because of the pandemic.
A new NFL season, the league's 101st, begins Thursday night in Kansas City with the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans.
And here's a surprise. Fans at sporting events are a rarity these days, but in fact, there'll be a far-from-capacity crowd at Arrowhead Stadium, with a slew of COVID-19 precautions waiting for them.
Through the pandemic, the NFL has maintained it'll start on schedule of Sept. 10.
And here we are.
Good fortune, but more risk
The NFL had the good fortune of being in its off-season in March, when the sports world shut down. The league didn't have to make tough decisions about when or if to restart, like other major sports league did, including Major League Baseball, the NBA, WNBA, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer.
But it's been watching and learning from those other leagues and how they dealt with playing during a pandemic. And certainly the NFL has mimicked them with its hefty package of health and safety protocols – 71 pages long.
Seemingly everything is covered.
There's testing: for players, every day except game day.
There's a very detailed section on the air in domed stadiums: "Prior to each club's first game, clubs must provide to the NFL a TAB Report (i.e. a test, adjust and balance of the HVAC system including air flow/static pressure of the stadium facility, details on the amount of outside air being introduced into the stadium, the calculated number of air changes per hour, the amount of return air being exhausted to atmosphere and returned to the mechanical room, and the level of MERV filtration in place)"
And there's even guidance on the traditional pre-game coin toss. It'll no longer be a small party with several players from each team gathering at midfield, exchanging quick hugs and fist bumps before mauling each other. Now, each team can send only one representative, who'll be required to wear a face covering.
Despite the many precautions, the NFL will carry more risk than other leagues.
Unlike the NBA in Florida, the NHL in Edmonton and Toronto, and the WNBA, also in Florida, the league won't be in a protective "bubble." Its 32 teams will play in their home cities and travel as per normal.
Which in this abnormal time, is risky.
Baseball is operating the same way and it's had to deal with flare-ups of the virus. Mostly, MLB has handled it, by postponing and rescheduling games. Potentially that's not as easy to do in the NFL, where players need more days off between games to recover. It might be a greater challenge to start piling up rescheduled games with a finely tuned schedule.
Asked about this, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said, "We will be prepared for all contingencies."
And they may be needed. Football isn't a contact sport – it's a collision sport. And a perfect activity for spreading a highly contagious virus.
"There is no likely way that you're going to prevent the virus from getting from one person's lungs to another person's lungs if they're standing around each other, or squatting, depending on what the position, a few feet or a few inches away from each other, tackling each other, and doing it repeatedly over the course of a few hours," Rishi Desai told USA Today. He's an infectious disease doctor and the chief medical officer for Osmosis, an online health-education platform.
But there's a lot of money to be lost with no season. A lot. With that in mind, and considering the success of the other leagues, so far, the feeling within the NFL is we can do this.
The hope is with daily testing, the strict protocols (remember those 71 pages), and fines for not adhering, this will keep the virus off the field. The league's latest testing numbers are encouraging.
The NFL and NFL Players Association announced between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, some 17,519 tests were given to 2,641 players. There was one confirmed positive test result.
But again, that's before the NFL's huge travelling circus hits the road.
A different look and sound
When it does, what will look different with NFL 2020?
We're used to seeing players with helmets on, which means we often don't see them. The one chance for facial recognition is when a player's on the sidelines. But that will change. At least the NFL hopes it changes. The league "strongly recommends" players wear masks when they're on the sidelines. It's not required, at least in 30 NFL cities right now. Because of local laws, everyone on the sidelines, players included, have to wear masks at San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills home games.
All coaches and staff members in their team's bench area are required to mask up throughout the league. It could provide an interesting, Darth Vader-like look up in New England, where six time Super Bowl winning head coach Bill Belichick will combine mask with hoodie.
They may be masked but maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to hear them finally. After all, cavernous NFL stadiums will be empty to start the season. At least most of them.
Kansas City, along with Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dallas, Jacksonville and Miami will allow fans to be at season-opening home games. But not many. Jacksonville reportedly will allow 25% capacity — around 17,000 fans; the Chiefs are expecting about 16,000 tonight in a stadium that holds over 72,000 when full.
It'll be interesting with, largely, no fans at games to see how that'll affect play. It should help visiting teams, especially offenses, which often can't hear signals over the din, requiring the use of hand signals.
Some coaches have complained that the few teams allowing fans have a competitive advantage. The NFL says that won't be a problem (of course the league says that), and to play "fair," it will let teams with no fans in attendance to pump in fake crowd noise to give everyone a kind of homefield advantage.
All that's left is determining how loud the audio can be. We told you the NFL's thorough.
Fake crowds don't buy tickets or merchandise or hot dogs and beer, and that means a lot of money lost. As a way to partially recoup, teams will put tarps bearing sponsor's names and messages, on the first six to eight rows seats in stadiums. The tarps are meant to keep fans out of those seats to make sure they keep their distance from players and coaches and team staff.
And speaking of distance, forget autographs and Lambeau leaps.
NFL 2020 is about enjoying from afar.
The need for grace
Social justice issues have become a significant part of the sports world's restart. There's been widespread activism by athletes in the NBA and WNBA in particular – most notably with teams deciding not to play games as a sign of protest.
Of course the NFL has played a major role in recent years, starting with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem.
What to expect from the league now, as TV cameras train their lenses on games across the nation?
It's certain there'll be more demonstrations than in recent years. Perhaps not on the level of the NBA or WNBA, where now it's notable when an athlete doesn't kneel.
But as good an indication as any of what's in store is coming out of Dallas.
Up until now, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been publicly adamant about the protests, demanding his players stand for the anthem. But in light of widespread demonstrations and sports activism since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May, Jones is softening his stance.
He recently spoke about the need for "grace" on both sides of the issue.
"That was then, two years ago, "Jones said last month about his previous hard line. "This is now. We've had very, very sensitive times. I want our players to understand the perception and where [fans against kneeling] are coming from regarding the flag and the sensitivity there and the many memories there. And I want our fans to understand where our players are coming from there, and not feel like the ones who ... kneel ... are dishonoring the flag."
No Cowboys players have protested during the anthem. Several say they will this season.
Oh yeah, football
Yes there's a pandemic and social upheaval going on. But for millions of NFL fans, and of course fantasy players, Sunday's and Monday's and Thursday's are about to get fun.
Thursday night's opener features a high-octane Chiefs offense led by 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. On the other sideline, Houston has a top young quarterback too, Deshaun Watson, and some interesting new offensive additions. Star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins left for the Arizona (Cardinals) desert, but the Texans added speedy pass catcher Brandin Cooks along with running back David Johnson, who was great several years ago and now is trying to come back from injuries and rediscover his talents in Houston.
Since all football conversations either start or lead to the most important position, another quarterback in the spotlight is Baltimore's Lamar Jackson. There are great hopes and expectations in Ravens' nation that Jackson will replicate the explosive numbers both running and passing that won him last season's MVP award.
And speaking of GOATS, there's an older gentlemen (in NFL years) who's taken up residence in Florida but not to play shuffleboard.
Tom Brady, 43, has traded in New England winters and Bill Belichick hoodies for sunny Tampa Bay, a quarterback whisperer head coach who favors "Gatsby" caps, and a slew of offensive and defensive weapons that could make his new team, the Buccaneers, a force to be reckoned with.
That's only a sliver of the storylines about to emerge as the NFL revs up, and, even in a pandemic, prepares to do what it always does – dominate the American sports landscape.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The NFL is back. Tonight, the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs are hosting the Houston Texans. And there will be actual fans at the game - a rarity during the pandemic. NPR's Tom Goldman is here to talk about the season's launch.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha. And I am excited.
PFEIFFER: I'm glad because with all the chaos that the coronavirus has unleashed on sports leagues, the NFL is the one major pro league that's actually starting on time, right?
GOLDMAN: That is right. The NFL had the good fortune of being in its offseason in March when the sports world shut down. So it didn't have to make tough decisions about restarting. It always targeted September 10. And here we are. That said, the NFL has been watching and learning from other leagues how they deal with playing during the pandemic. And certainly it has mimicked them with its hefty list of health and safety protocols - 71 pages of them.
PFEIFFER: Seventy-one pages. What are in some of those pages in terms of how they're going to keep players and fans safe from the virus?
GOLDMAN: Right. Well, unlike the NBA and National Hockey League and the WNBA, the NFL won't be in a protective bubble. Thirty-two teams will play in their home cities and travel, which makes this a riskier endeavor like with Major League Baseball, which also has not been in a bubble. And MLB has dealt with flare-ups of the virus but has handled those pretty well by postponing and rescheduling games. It remains to be seen if the NFL would be able to do that. I asked an NFL spokesman what the league will do if there's an outbreak and games need to be moved. He said, we will be prepared for all contingencies.
Now, players will be tested every day but not on game day. And one other unique aspect of the NFL start, as you mentioned, fans will be at some games. Six teams, like Kansas City, as you said, also Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dallas, Jacksonville, Miami - they're all allowing fans for their opening home games, although crowd sizes at each stadium will be greatly reduced and not near capacity. And fans will have to mask up and follow a fair number of stadium COVID rules.
PFEIFFER: And, Tom, social justice issues have obviously become a significant part of the sports restart. What can we expect from the NFL players?
GOLDMAN: That's an important question, Sacha, considering it's the NFL that's generated so much controversy in recent years, starting when Colin Kaepernick took a knee in protest during the playing of the national anthem. You likely will see a lot more of that in the NFL, although probably not as much as we're seeing in the NBA and the WNBA, where it's now notable when an athlete doesn't kneel.
Interestingly, several Dallas Cowboys players say they will kneel for the first time. And their team owner, Jerry Jones, is supporting them. He recently said there needs to be an understanding on both sides of the issue. Players need to know how fans can be offended by a protest. And he added this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JERRY JONES: And I want our fans to understand where our players are coming from there, that the ones that want to kneel, They do not feel like they're dishonoring the flag.
GOLDMAN: Now, remember, Sacha - or maybe not - this is the same guy who's been adamantly against player protests. He said when the anthem plays, he wants his Dallas Cowboys to toe the line and stand. So for him to say this and acknowledge that, you know, fans have to be sensitive to what the players are doing, that's significant.
PFEIFFER: A big about turn for sure. Tom, one thing we haven't really talked about is actual football, the game, the strategy. What are you looking forward to seeing on the field this season?
GOLDMAN: You know, starting with tonight, I think it's safe to say that the Kansas City Chiefs will contend for another title with their NFL-best offense. Baltimore, behind the electrifying quarterback Lamar Jackson, they'll be in the mix, too. And, of course, all eyes are on Tampa Bay, where, as you well know being in Boston, longtime New England Patriot Tom Brady is now a Buccaneer, part of a very talented team on offense and defense. NFL fans can't wait to find out, can old man Brady - He's an ancient 43 right now - can he still make some magic?
PFEIFFER: Brady, who left us for Florida. That's NPR's Tom Goldman. Thank you.
GOLDMAN: (Laughter) You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.