With $3 billion on the line, expect NFL games to continue despite Covid-19 outbreak

Key Points
  • The NFL has reviewed a number of its Covid-19 safety protocols, threatening fines and lost draft picks if violations continue to occur.
  • If the league stops its season, players could lose roughly $3 billion in salary. 
  • Following a conference call with players on Wednesday evening, sources told CNBC some NFLPA members took accountability for the violations as players look to better police themselves after the latest outbreaks.
Ryan Tannehill #17 of the Tennessee Titans passes the ball in the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on September 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen | Getty Images

This was expected.

The National Football League is now experiencing a pandemic crisis sparked by Covid-19 outbreaks that started with the Tennessee Titans. And like Major League Baseball, outside skepticism is starting to intensify whether the league will complete its pandemic season.

After more than 20 positive tests by members of the Titans, who are now the "Miami Marlins" of professional football, the NFL has reviewed a number of its pandemic safety protocols threatening fines and draft picks if violations continue to occur.

According to people familiar with the situation, the investigation about whether or not members of the Titans violated the league's Covid-19 protocols is nearly complete, but its findings haven't been made available. The people added they expect the NFL to issue its discipline in a matter of days. The individuals agreed to discuss the matter on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of discussing personal health matters. 

The Titans' practice site remains closed, and the club's upcoming game against the Buffalo Bills will be played on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern time. 

A similar investigation into the New England Patriots is still in progress after players, including star quarterback Cam Newton, tested positive for Covid-19. Newton's results prompted the rescheduling of the team's contest against the Kansas City Chiefs, and with additional positive tests, the NFL moved the Patriots' Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos to Monday at 5 p.m. Eastern.

If players are found to have violated the guidelines, they could face a $50,000 fine for the first error. A second violation could be more costly as players could be faced with "conduct detrimental to the team" violations. And that could void massive guarantees in some contracts depending on the deals' structure. 

In a memo to clubs on Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell confirmed the "breaches to the protocols" and reminded players and team personnel that "compliance is mandatory." Teams and coaches have already been issued fines for not wearing masks on the sidelines during games.

But will the fines and threats work? And can the NFL learn anything from MLB, which is on the verge of completing its season with the World Series scheduled for this month in Texas? 

Gil Fried, an expert on stadium safety and risk management and professor at the University of New Haven, said time is the remedy.

"Time gives us opportunity to learn more and to do things that we might not have done previously," Fried said. "As every day progresses, we learn more. We develop better drugs and have learned so much over the last eight months. Yes, we have a lot of people who are still messing up, but you expect that."

Fried said he's concerned with the latest outbreak and warned the NFL can't get "complacent," especially with fears of a second wave of the virus this fall and winter.

"Every league is trying to figure out what is the best way to move forward knowing that we are human beings, and human beings have all of our flaws," Fried said. "We can make as many rules as we want – have distance, monitoring devices that we have to wear, all those types of things, but people are people."

The University of New Haven had its own Covid-19 outbreak recently following a large gathering last weekend.

"People get complacent as time goes on, and while we're seeing an uptick across the country, we've got to figure out will sports still be safe to play," Fried said.

Tightening protocols 

According sources, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) held a conference call on Wednesday night with players' representatives to discuss the outbreaks. The NFLPA reminded members of the roughly $3 billion in salary that would be lost should the league fail to finish the 2020 season.

Prominent NFL agent Chafie Fields, an executive vice president at Wasserman, said he constantly informs his clients about the importance of following the league's Covid-19 protocols to avoid more outbreaks and put players in position to conclude the 2020 season.

"Not only that, but also making sure that they understand the veterans on teams, they have to be the ones to hold young guys accountable because I don't foresee a lot of the older guys taking it for granted," Fields told CNBC.

Fields' clients include Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper and Chris Harris Jr., cornerback of the Los Angeles Chargers.

"I'm talking to every one of those guys so they can be accountable for not only themselves but holding the younger guys accountable too so they can understand the importance [of following guidelines]," he added.

According to the NFL's latest Covid-19 testing report, as of Wednesday, 37,002 tests were provided to 7,981 people. The test revealed 11 confirmed cases among players and 15 cases among "other personnel."

Following the Titans' first outbreak, Goodell said Covid-19 protocols were reviewed and adjusted. The changes include:

  • Longer waiting periods for free agent tryouts
  • Limited number of player tryouts per week
  • A complete ban on gatherings outside of club-related meetings 
  • Installing a leaguewide video monitoring system to ensure protocols are followed, mainly protective coverings while players and team staff are inside team facilities and traveling to and from games.

"We also discussed additional steps to minimize risk: consider holding all meetings virtually, wear masks or shields during practices and walk-throughs, decrease the size of the traveling party, reduce the time spent in lunchrooms and locker rooms and consult the proximity tracking device information daily to identify areas where your club could eliminate close contacts," Goodell said in the memo.

The NFL did not respond to a CNBC request to discuss updated protocols. 

But even with the league revising its precautions, concerns about the uptick in Covid-19 cases in NFL cities are a more significant threat to the league's ability to finish the season even if NFL outbreaks decline.

According to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, Covid-19 cases in the U.S. have increased to more than 40,000 per day with states like Wisconsin, where the Green Bay Packers play, among the hot spots.

People walk around the International Hotel Grand Hyatt during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic on May 21, 2020 in New York City.
VIEW press | Corbis News | Getty Images

Time for an NFL bubble?

It's one reason there have been rumblings about an NFL bubble. The football version of a bubble suggests players staying at hotels during the season. The NFL would need approval from the NFLPA, which, as of now, is unlikely, sources said.

But that could change once the postseason arrives.

"I have no problem with that model," Fried said when asked about an NFL bubble. He added, "it's an easier way to monitor what is going on. If you have everyone scattered all over the place, it's a lot harder to monitor that and to impose rules to make it safer for everyone."

But there are challenges to creating a football bubble. One issue is the ability for teams to have proper recovery equipment located on nonteam premises. Fried said the quality of play could be impacted should players be removed from the current environments. 

"I just think about when you're traveling and how that impacts your ability to sleep and things like that," he said. Fried added a move to banish teams, similar to Major League Soccer's decision after its Covid-19 positive tests, "could result in a backlash."

But with billions at stake, Fried said he expects the league to finish its season though outbreaks may continue.

Also, the economic fallout of canceled games would further harm the league's revenue. NFL league office employees have accepted pay reductions, and teams went through layoffs as some games continue with no spectators. The NFL can't afford to sacrifice its TV revenue, which pays the league roughly $7 billion per season. 

"They're looking at it as if they don't [play], what can be the broader impact and will that impact the league going forward," Fried said. "The NFL has to protect itself from the potential future harm that it might have and the broader economic benefits that might accrue to everyone."

BioReference Labs says it has run nearly 600,000 virus tests for NBA, NFL
BioReference Labs says it has run nearly 600,000 virus tests for NBA, NFL