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Is an NFL season during the COVID-19 pandemic possible? We asked epidemiology experts to find out.
AP

Is an NFL season during the COVID-19 pandemic possible? We asked epidemiology experts to find out.

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Power brokers for the Power 5 conferences are discussing this week whether to cancel the 2020 college football season because of the health and safety challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what about the NFL, which is scheduled to kick off its season in a month?

A majority of NFL teams will begin training camp practices this week at their team facilities with the hope players and coaches won't contract the highly contagious coronavirus, which could hamper the ability to play games and possibly the season.

The Cowboys will conduct their first practice on Friday at The Star in Frisco.

"The season will undoubtedly present new and additional challenges," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement last month. "But we are committed to playing a safe and complete 2020 season, culminating with the Super Bowl."

Will the teams' safety precautions, approved by the players' union and health officials, work? Several epidemiologists have doubts, calling what the NFL is doing high-risk behavior.

"I think it's difficult," said epidemiologist Dr. Zachary Binney at Oxford College of Emory University.

"So tackle football is a sport. I don't think there's any way you can reliably prevent transmission within football teams or across football teams in a game. So the focus really has to be on preventing a case from getting on the field in the first place, and that's what the NFL is trying to spend a lot of its time doing and rightfully so."

NFL teams are testing players on a daily basis and sectioning players into socially distanced areas of facilities. The Cowboys require players to wear bracelets in the facility that track their whereabouts and beep if they are within six feet of someone else.

Players, coaches, administrators and some employees must undergo a facial recognition scan and take two temperature readings before entering the Frisco facility.

Outside of The Star, players and coaches are asked to avoid large crowds, including attending some sporting events, to execute proper hygiene by washing hands with soap and water and, of course, to wear a mask.

Is this enough?

"It's definitely going to be interesting because I would place football in a high category risk," said Diana Cervantes, an epidemiologist with the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

"But I did see they're trying to put opt outs of the season and implement fines to make sure people are wearing their mask and not participating in high-risk behavior. The bigger risk probably occurs off the field in that setting. They go to clubs and going out in groups and those types of things, it will be interesting. A lot of questions still pending that will make it very challenging."

Sixty-seven NFL players opted out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns, including three Cowboys. The New England Patriots led the NFL with eight players opting out. Tackle Marcus Cannon, a TCU product, was among the Patriots players to decide they would not play this season.

The option of not playing leaves the remaining players to follow protocols set forth by the NFL and approved by state and local governments.

On July 17, the NFL sent a 43-page document to the Texas Department of State Health Services detailing the protocols the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans promised to follow. The state approved the league's request to open training camps in late July.

Now comes the hard part of making sure players remain safe. According to the John Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineers, as of Monday afternoon Texas had the third most coronavirus cases at 504,114 with 9,170 deaths. Collin County, where the Cowboys practice facility is located, reported 740 cases per 100,000 residents.

The numbers and the challenges that accompany keeping players safe without the comfort of a quarantined bubble environment - the approach taken by the NBA and NHL for the return of those sports - is a daunting task.

Not even a week into the start of its 60-game regular season, Major League Baseball's Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals had games postponed because of positive tests among players. On Sunday, Cleveland Indians' pitcher Zach Plesac violated team and MLB COVID-19 protocols when he left the team hotel to socialize with friends in Chicago.

"Football does present some unique challenges relative to baseball," Binney said. "Just comparing the MLB, there's more people involved in a football game, more chances for the virus to get in both in games and in practices. So there's more chances for the virus to spread if it gets in. So it's going to be a challenge especially in the U.S. right now where we have a lot of cases of the virus."

When Steven S. Coughlin, a professor of epidemiology at Augusta University, was asked what worried him about the NFL he said via email: "It's a contact sport with players in close contact."

The NFL has presented players with helmet prototypes with face shields that come down to the chin as one of the equipment measures to protect players.

It's been met with mixed results.

"I need to breathe when I'm playing," Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. "And it's one thing to have an eye shield on but to have that other part on your helmet, some guys can wear it ... but I'm probably not going to do it. We're sweating, we're hitting and doing all that. I don't' think we're going to get around it just by wearing a little shield on our chin."

Texans defensive end JJ Watt is against wearing a face shield, too.

"You put a fishbowl on your head and you go try to run around for three hours and beat a grown man, it's not going to go too well" Watt said in a conference call with Houston reporters. "I don't think that would go too well for me either. So, no, as long as it's optional, I won't be wearing it."

And even if players use the shields, there are no guarantees it will prevent someone from getting the virus.

"The truth is we don't know how much that is going to help yet," Binney said.

"I know the face shields were carefully engineered by some folks at the NFL who I really like and trust. But there are holes in them and I know they're designed to prevent direct droplets transmission from person to person. But you're still spending a lot of time, very close together. You're tackling each other, the face shields haven't even been mandated so only some players are going to wear them."

So will the NFL season get completed without any problems? Will a player or coach test positive for the virus - Eagles coach Doug Pederson already has - during the season?

Will the NFL be forced to postpone or cancel games if there's a major outbreak?

The next four weeks will provide answers to these questions.

"Anytime you have an open population outside of the bubble," Cervantes said, "you're going to have increase of risk."

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