Manish Mehta: Is the NFL being optimistic or greedy by planning to start 2020 season on time?

Tribune Content Agency

The NFL’s declaration Tuesday that it plans to play a full 16-game season as scheduled in front of crowds this fall was equal parts optimistic, delusional and greedy. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has paralyzed the sports world, America’s most popular pastime soldiers on with more than a whiff of defiance.

NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash made it clear during a conference call that “all of our focus has been on a normal, traditional season, playing on time, playing in front of fans in our regular stadiums.” It sounded like it came straight from the Rose Garden, where insouciance had been the norm for far too long during this crisis.

Perhaps Pash’s insistence that he’s “pretty confident” that the 2020 regular season slated to begin on Sept. 10 will go on as planned given his intel from advisors and experts shouldn’t be entirely surprising. After all, the NFL refused to delay free agency a few weeks ago when the rest of the sports community pressed the pause button.

Roger Goodell’s recent memo to all teams that the draft will go on as scheduled April 23-25 from a yet to be determined location (probably his house) provided further evidence that the NFL is fully aboard the show-must-go-on train, critics be damned (or disciplined if you’re a league employee).

Football is a welcomed distraction given current conditions. The shutdown of sports in the country has had a sizable impact given its place in American society. Although league apologists greatly exaggerated the value of free agency to the average fan, the first day or two of the draft certainly will draw viewers (and ratings).

Games, however, are the bread and butter for the multi-billion dollar enterprise. Games move the needle. Games matter.

At a time when nobody, including the world’s foremost authorities, truly know when it will be safe to return to our normal way of living, it would have been wise for the NFL to have an open-ended stance. However, money appears to be their eternal compass.

The NFL’s public declaration that plans for the start of the season remain the same are partly designed to assuage advertisers. The league caters more to TV viewers than on-site fans anyway. Selling the league’s broadcasting rights for $5 billion per year probably has something to do with it.

But the NFL, which has still remarkably not yet cancelled their annual May meeting, cannot guarantee anything.

“That’s my expectation,” Pash said about starting the season on time. “Am I certain? I’m not certain I will be here tomorrow. But I’m planning on it. And I’m planning on a full season.”

To that end, the league intends to release the full 2020 schedule around May 9, or about three weeks later than previous years. Pash conveyed that the league has explored “virtual programs” to facilitate offseason work between coaches and players absent a typical Organized Team Activity program in the spring. It’s their best alternative while team facilities remain closed.

Cold hard cash might be the real motivator for the league’s optimistic bent, but hopefully health, safety and common sense prevail. A delay to the start of the season would be reasonable.

It’s hard to imagine training camps opening up in late July given the current climate. Is it worth putting more than 100 people (players, coaches, locker room staff) on every team at risk? How realistic is it that the virus will be eradicated four months from now?

The pandemic’s grip remains tight: Nobody knows.


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