As coronavirus empties arenas, what will the NFL do?

CoronavirusNine years ago, NFL owners and players were negotiating a new CBA — and the start of the league year was delayed four months.

Now, with another CBA extension on the line, it’s possible the league year will be postponed again — for completely unrelated reasons.

The coronavirus pandemic has created a fearful environment in the U.S. (and the world) that has not existed since the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. Even then, sports events were delayed for just a week as the nation grieved and tried to process what had happened.

This is very different.

Every pro sports league in action now has suspended activity, and the beloved NCAA tournament — the best sporting event outside the NFL playoffs — has been canceled for the first time in its 81-year history. Like SXSW, Coachella and many other big events and groups, the sports world is trying to do its part to slow the spread of the virus while medicos everywhere work feverishly to find a vaccine.

The NFL is in no danger of losing games to this pandemic (assuming, as expected, it retreats before August), but the league has canceled the March owners meetings, and many teams have shut down their facilities or taken other measures to protect employees.

The big questions — the only ones remaining among major sports — involve the NFL’s free agency and draft.

The former is slated to start next week, and NFL Media and ESPN both reported there are no plans to change that. But Pro Football Talk’s source said the league is contemplating postponing free agency Sunday, after the NFLPA’s deadline for its players to vote on the CBA proposal.

Because contract business can be done remotely, there is no practical reason to delay free agency — at least in the early stages, when workouts are not needed. Any postponement would be a PR move and/or a sign of solidarity with the rest of the sports world.

As for the planned big draft spectacle in Las Vegas in late April, a source told the Washington Post: “We have time.” The NFL clearly hopes the pandemic will subside in the next few weeks, allowing the league to avoid bumping its Christmas Day or making it a remote process.

But keeping the April 23-25 event as is would take a minor miracle. Health officials expect to have a coronavirus vaccine to test in a few weeks, but they say the efficacy won’t be known for 12-18 months. And warmer temperatures won’t necessarily slow the virus, according to experts.

Like SARS in 2003, experts say, the biggest weapon against COVID-19 is expected to be quarantining people and limiting large-scale social events — exactly what many of America’s major organizations are now doing.

Experts say that strategy has seemed to work in China, so the hope is it will yield similar results elsewhere. But it has taken over two months for China to gain some measure of apparent control over the spread, so figure it will take at least that long in America.

We probably won’t see a return to normal life until at least May. Will the NFL wait that long to let teams put together their 2020 rosters?

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