NFL’s chief medical officer softens the league’s prior message regarding 2020 planning

The NFL is backtracking on the full-speed-ahead message that it sent earlier this week.

On Tuesday, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash said in plain, blunt terms the the league plans to play a full season with full stadiums. On Thursday, NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills painted a more pragmatic picture.

Speaking to Judy Battista of NFL Media, Dr. Sills started with an obvious statement: “I don’t think that I would interpret those comments to say that that is absolutely what’s going to happen.” Dr. Sills is right, because that’s not what Pash said.

Here’s what Pash said, in explaining that the league is planning for a full season: “That’s my expectation. 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.”

Here’s what Dr. Sills told Battista: “I would say that’s everyone’s hope, that we are in a position to do that. But the reality is none of us know those facts for certain right now. We hope and pray for the best and prepare for the worst, realizing that is one potential outcome that we will be back fully in business playing games as normal in front of fans on schedule. But it’s certainly not the only outcome. And I think what was implied there was to say we are not at a point where we are saying that is absolutely not going to happen so we should continue our planning and preparations as if we’re going to be able to do that. But obviously we’re going to have to evaluate that along the way. And follow what the recommendations are from public health officials and from our infectious disease experts and others.”

All indications had been that the league is so focused on the draft that it’s not even thinking about contingency plans for the 2020 season. Dr. Sills’ comments suggest that has changed.

And then there’s this from Sills, which further undermines Pash’s steadfast tone: “As long as we’re still in a place where when a single individual tests positive for the virus that you have to quarantine every single person who was in contact with them in any shape, form or fashion, then I don’t think you can begin to think about reopening a team sport. Because we’re going to have positive cases for a very long time.”

So what needs to happen for a sport like the NFL to reopen? At a minimum, stay-at-home orders will have to be lifted in all states where the NFL does business — or teams in states still on lockdown will have to train and play in a state that isn’t. Also, quick and easy testing for the virus will be critical, since everyone in the facility will have to be constantly tested.

Then there’s the issue of having fans in attendance. Can that really happen without a vaccine? Probably not.

So this is going to be a long, slow process. And the question of whether the NFL will play games this season continues to be unsettled — and it will be for a while.