Saturday, 9 May 2020

The NFL’s 2020 schedule release felt too normal; how far is too far before football sells false hope?

The NFL proceeded with its April draft on schedule when many said the league was being insensitive for doing so. And the league’s decision to stand its ground ended up feeling like the correct call.

The three-day event was therapeutic for starved sports fans and millions of people confined to their homes. It kept football’s offseason on schedule toward the possibility of playing a season. And it sold hope to 32 fan bases.

And hope of any kind these days is a good feeling.

Unless, that is, it’s false hope.

And this is the dilemma I have reflected upon while taking a breath after Thursday night’s breathless 2020 NFL schedule release:

Was the NFL’s trumpeting of an unaffected, 16-game regular season schedule realistic at all?

Was it appropriate that the league severely underplayed the existence of contingencies in the schedule’s creation due to the coronavirus pandemic?

And was it disingenuous and disrespectful, therefore, to sell New Yorkers and New Jerseyans on a Sept. 14 Giants home opener at MetLife Stadium when none of us can even walk across the street and borrow a screwdriver from our neighbor?

When will MetLife Stadium be ready to welcome fans again?
When will MetLife Stadium be ready to welcome fans again?(Matt York/AP)

Or was the NFL’s course reasonable and justified because no one knows what is coming tomorrow and hope is better than nothing at all?

Because on Friday I saw Boston mayor Marty Walsh cancel all parades and festivals through Labor Day. I saw NBA commissioner Adam Silver tell pro basketball’s players that they should prepare for the possibility of no fans in arenas through next season. And yet I’m supposed to believe the Giants are hosting the Steelers on Monday Night Football on Sept. 14?

See, I am sensitive to the fact that the NFL and all of these professional sports leagues are balancing an incredibly delicate and difficult dilemma daily. These decisions are not easy.

I was even guilty myself on Thursday night of selling that false hope, seeing that schedule in my inbox and firing it off to show fans what they might be able to look forward to.

But upon further review, as they say, something about this just does not feel right.

I reached out to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office for comment on whether it is premature to schedule a game at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 14 and if it would even be possible to host one.

Murphy declined comment on the NFL schedule through a spokesperson.

If anyone is being honest, though, it is absurd to think of holding an NFL game in East Rutherford in just four months as Murphy delivers daily briefings to try and help people survive, let alone persist.

There is a distinct difference, too, between keeping the draft on schedule in April and proceeding with the regular season in September. Playing the season puts real people in play and at risk, starting with training camp.

Fortunately, what I found in making calls around the league is that team and league officials privately consider the schedule released on Thursday to be a much more fluid document than was presented.

It was words on a piece of paper, a plan for a best-case scenario, but not a commitment to press forward regardless, for the Giants and New Jersey or for any franchise.

The NFL consistently has stressed that it will prioritize the safety of its staff, players, and fans above all. Commissioner Roger Goodell reiterated the season’s kickoff will depend on the advice of medical professionals and compliance with local and state governments.

Roger Goodell and the NFL is plowing ahead like nothing has changed.
Roger Goodell and the NFL is plowing ahead like nothing has changed.(AP)

The players themselves, like most Americans, want to work but want to be safe. So a lot of what’s being discussed right now is how training camp and a season will actually work.

Will players have to be quarantined during training camp? How safe will it be? What if someone tests positive? These are men with livelihoods and families and hopes for the future, just like you and me.

As far as the schedule itself, while the NFL underplayed any backup plans in place due to the pandemic, it seems clear they exist.

The Giants normally open at Dallas, for example, and aren’t scheduled to visit the Cowboys until Oct. 11 in Week 5 this year. But due to the early schedule’s ability to slide back to later dates or get scratched, it’s clear the Oct. 11 game could end up being Big Blue’s first game anyway.

Whether the Giants open on Sept. 14 in New Jersey or Oct. 11 in Arlington, Tex., however, will there even be fans in the stands? It’s hard to answer that question confidently with a yes without appearing to cower to the presidential pressure to resume business for appearances’ sake.

It was difficult to hear NFL VP of football operations Troy Vincent say on Thursday night, meanwhile, that “the plan is to move forward as normal to play a full season, a full schedule, until the medical community tells us otherwise.”

Because there is nothing normal about what is happening right now. Not medically. Not in any way. So even if the sale of hope can be helpful and palliative at times, the NFL’s sale of the 2020 season this week could have used a stronger asterisk accompanying its promise.

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