Opinion: Amid coronavirus uncertainty, NFL resolute in staying the course for 2020 season — for now

Despite the uncertainty that continues to swirl as the coronavirus pandemic‘s impact grows, NFL officials are determined to proceed as if normalcy will return by late this summer.

After a pair of conference calls with all 32 team presidents on Monday and each franchise’s ownership groups on Tuesday, league officials revealed that plans for the start of the 2020 season remain unaltered. 

That means no delay to training camp or the preseason, opening week of the regular season, and no modification to teams’ 16-game regular season for either domestic or international matchups.

In recent weeks, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered all teams to close their facilities and utilize video conferencing for free agent meetings and pre-draft visits. Teams also are proceeding as though traditional offseason conditioning programs and practices, which usually span a nine-week stretch from early April to mid-June, will not take place. Meanwhile, league and NFL Players Association officials are currently trying to settle on parameters for “virtual offseason programs,” which would feature video conferencing to replace the on-field learning opportunities that will be lost this spring.

But when it comes to the start of the regular season, it’s business as usual. For now. 

“All of our discussions, all of our focus has been on a normal, traditional season starting on time, played in front of our fans, in our regular stadiums, and going through a full 16-game regular season and a full set of playoffs. That’s our focus,” NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeffrey Pash said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

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He went on to explain the sense of optimism stems from the fact that “the doctors are looking at are models that address the effectiveness of different kinds of interventions. … We’re still in March, there are still quite a few months between now and when our season will begin. The belief and information that we have is leading us to continue to focus on starting on time and playing in the normal way.”

At first blush, the business-as-usual declaration seems perplexing. The stance could be misconstrued as either overly optimistic or calloused. 

We’re in a time where efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 have forced the cancellation of college sports and the postponement of other professional sports while many businesses across the country have ceased operation.

But given the NFL’s decision to proceed with free agency and the draft — although the presentation will be dramatically altered — the undaunted approach shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. 

The league will try to remain as unflinching as possible when it comes to the long-term picture, and officials will adjust as needed in the short-term.

The NFL is a multibillion-dollar industry with an expansive reach. Complicating matters are the many moving parts to a season, including plans with broadcast partnerships, deals with corporate sponsors, sales with season ticketholders, travel arrangements for teams and more.

So despite the great uncertainty, this is the approach that the NFL has to take. From a business standpoint, it’s important to continue to convey a sense of confidence. And waiting to finalize plans for a regular season will lead to problems of a different kind later this summer. Instead, the league plans to roll out is full schedule by May 9.

We don’t have any way of knowing whether the curve that medical experts and government officials speak of will have flattened by late-April, mid-May, June or July. 

We have no way of knowing if the spread of COVID-19 will slow, opening the door for a return to normalcy, any more than we know if cases will abruptly spike weeks or months from now. 

That’s why, at least publicly, the league is maintaining this undeterred approach.  

When asked when league officials would begin discussing contingency plans in the event that the starts of training camps and the regular season are at risk, Pash said it’s too early to make such a call. 

“I really don’t know,” he said. “I think a lot of it will depend on the medical and public health situation. If the modeling is as we’ve been given to understand, we may not have to get very far down that road. If things take a turn and different regulations are put in place, then we’ll have to address it in a more substantial way. But like I said, for the time being, we’re pretty confident that we’ll be able to begin on schedule.”

As is evident by the planning that is going into repackaging the NFL draft and altering the offseason program, the NFL is working within the framework provided by local and national authorities.

However, at some point soon, discussions must commence regarding a need for flexibility in relation to the regular season. 

It’s hard to believe that some form of preliminary contingency discussions haven’t already begun, even peripherally. 

But, at the same time, given the unbending nature of NFL owners, the stance of soldiering on until circumstances dictate otherwise makes perfect sense.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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