As sports leagues rushed to delay or cancel events in March, the N.F.L. made a bold promise to start its season on time and unaltered. Since then, the league has held most of its normal activities, including free agency, the draft and off-season workouts, on time, though remotely rather than in person.
But with the start of training camp just two weeks away, the N.F.L.’s pledge to keep to its schedule is facing its biggest test yet. The league and the players’ union have yet to agree to key ground rules that would govern the players’ return to team facilities, including testing and screening protocols for the coronavirus, the length of the preseason, procedures for players who want to opt out of the season and how to offset the loss of revenue that would result from holding games without fans this season.
The two sides held a conference call on Monday, but made little progress, according to Richard Sherman, a member of the union’s executive committee. On Twitter, he said he and his union colleagues “were blunt and honest” with the owners and “will not compromise our players’ health in these discussions.” They planned to continue talking on Tuesday.
In the months since the new collective bargaining deal was signed in March, the league and the N.F.L. Players Association have continued to agree on points of policy. In June, the two sides agreed on guidelines for off-season workouts and opening training facilities to coaches and limited staff. Last week, they found common ground on the terms regulating protocols for players in training camp and games, notably setting rules about social distancing on sidelines and in locker rooms, and prohibiting postgame jersey swaps, a provision that drew players’ dismay on social media despite its union having signed off.
Finding a way to safely monitor more than 2,000 players for the coronavirus has proved to be thornier, and if the unresolved issues are not settled this week, players may not have enough time to travel to join their teams and observe necessary quarantines, forcing the league to delay the start of training camp.
“The upshot of everything that’s gone on thus far is that no one knows anything, there’s no clear line of information about what’s going to happen,” said David Canter, an agent who represents numerous players. “What happens on these conference calls is one question leads to 50 more questions. The players don’t know the answers, the agents don’t know the answers, the union doesn’t know the answers.”
Canter reeled off a list of questions that he said were still unanswered: Will players who contract the coronavirus be paid their salaries while in quarantine? Can players sit out the season without being removed from a team’s roster? Will there be any accommodation for players with pre-existing conditions? If several players on a team are infected, will training camp be halted?
Other major sports leagues have chosen to operate under the same basic labor rule when it comes to the pandemic: Players with pre-existing medical conditions can petition to sit out and still be paid; others who are merely fearful of the virus can sit, too, but will not be paid.
There is also debate about preseason games. The team owners can open training camp at their discretion and hold up to four preseason games per team, though they have pressed the players to approve a proposal halving the preseason. The joint league-union medical committee recommended cutting the number of preseason games to one or two to reduce the risk of infection but still allow coaches to see new players in live games and so players can become acclimated to new game day protocols. The union, though, has proposed eliminating all such games to reduce travel and the risk of infection.
Mike Tannenbaum, an analyst for ESPN and a former general manager of the Jets, said that holding at least one preseason game between teams that are near each other would help players and coaches adjust to the new rules and prepare for games at full speed.
“It’s not a perfect solution, but it will reduce risk,” he said.
Tannenbaum also suggested liberalizing rules to let veterans join the practice squad so that if a player on the roster tests positive for the virus, the team will have experienced replacements.
Then there are the broader economic questions that the owners and the union are still debating. With the virus raging in California, Florida, Texas and other states with N.F.L. teams, the likelihood that fans will be able to attend games is diminishing. The owners and union must come up with a formula for how to recoup the lost revenue from tickets, food, luxury boxes and merchandise sold on game days.
The owners have proposed putting 35 percent of players’ salaries in escrow and then returning whatever amount is not needed once the losses are tallied. The union rejected this proposal outright because it would impose a heavy burden on players in a single year.
“All the owners are trying to do is recoup all the losses from all their business in one year,” said Lorenzo Alexander, a member of the union’s executive committee. “There’s no way you can ask a guy to go out there with Covid-19 and take 35 percent less money.”
Instead, the union prefers spreading the losses over as many as 10 years by reducing the salary cap, or the amount that teams can pay players, in smaller annual increments. Better to have a generation of players absorb the losses over many years, during which the league’s revenue will grow, especially after new broadcast deals are signed in the next year or two. “There’s going to be enough money to smooth it out,” he said.
Cutting the salary cap over many years could have unintended consequences, though. Teams could sign less expensive players to keep their payroll within league limits, hurting experienced veterans.
“You’re going to see a lot of renegotiation of contracts and see some marginal players cut from the books who might have stayed on,” said Timothy Derdenger, who teaches sports marketing at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon. “Teams will get younger.”
The one thing that all sides are bracing for is a wave of positive tests for the coronavirus. Some players, coaches and even one owner, Michael Bidwill of the Arizona Cardinals, have tested positive, and if the experience of Major League Baseball and other leagues that have returned is any guide, many more N.F.L. players will test positive once they return to training camp.
Unlike the N.B.A. and Major League Soccer, which have created restricted environments to reduce the risk of infection, N.F.L. players will return home at the end of the day, which means they can be exposed to infection often.
Given how drastically infection rates are rising across the country, the N.F.L. and the union may have to accept a lot of uncertainty in their rules and protocols if they hope to start their season on time.
“The virus doesn’t care about the N.F.L. calendar or anyone or anything,” Canter, the player agent, said.