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June 22, 2020

John McMullen: Don't worry, the NFL will be back in 2020

The NFL’s response to the nation’s Alarmist in Chief was a swift one.

Soon after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speculated about a fall without professional football with CNN's Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the league trotted out its top doc to point back to the far more likely conclusion, a kickoff on Sept. 10.

To be blunt it was a tip of the cap to Fauci and an ‘appreciate the input, but we plan to play’ rebuttal.

Fauci, coupled with the news of 13 COVID-19 positives in the University of Texas football program on the same day, was a one-two punch to those longing for football late last week.

"Unless players are essentially in a bubble -- insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day -- it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci surmised. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year."

The news further darkened with a host of positive tests over the weekend across the league and the sports world as a whole.

So what exactly is going on here?

To be fair to Fauci, he’s in a no-win situation in what is a polarized society.

Despite the fact there were more qualifiers in his final sentence to Gupta than your average youth wrestling tournament (when things like that existed), the baton was taken and the race was on.

Dr. Doom and Gloom took over for the portion of America that loves and selfishly wants professional football above all else and Fauci’s latest off-the-cuff remarks also sparked an almost celebratory tone from a weird contingent who want their projections of disease and death to “win” so they can continue to vilify a former reality show host turned politician.

So Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, parried from there.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches and other essential personnel,‘' Sills said in a statement from the league. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues.”

While both Fauci and Sills have access to all the relevant data when it comes to the virus only one is armed with the knowledge of how much money is at stake here and the realization that television networks, NFL teams and yes, even the players themselves, will ultimately not walk away from it despite any misgivings

And there are misgivings.

“This is a contact disease and we play a contact sport,‘' NFLPA president JC Tretter said on a Zoom conference call with Cleveland-area reporters that was provided to “The way this thing passes along is through contact, and that is what we do for a living. The way we interact with each other at the facility, at practice, weight lifting and at the meal room, it is us shoulder-to-shoulder standing by each other and passing things around.”

In Tretter’s mind “there is a long list of ideas we need to come up with to make this environment safe for us.”

That said, the bubble idea like the NBA is prepared to try in Orlando is simply not logistically possible with the swelled rosters and support staff in the NFL, not to mention the ease of finding basketball courts versus competent football fields in one area.

By nature, doctors are cautious and need to be but this is about two things -- mitigating the spread of a virus that is not all that impactful to younger people with healthy immune systems (a category that includes professional athletes) and also mitigating the blame for a worst-case scenario.

The latter is running things with the policymakers. It’s about covering their asses not their faces.

Some, like former Eagles’ executive Joe Banner, even expressed the counterintuitive notion that testing positive in June could be a competitive advantage for the season.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson was recently asked about potentially quarantining a backup QB, an idea first broached by Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians in the event his projected starter, the 43-year-old Tom Brady tested positive and needed to go into self-isolation for two weeks.

“Obviously, there are a lot of ways to go about things, and that's one way to do it,” said Pederson. “If you do it with the quarterback position, do you do it with a receiver? Do you do it with a defensive back? … But these are all things that right now, between now and the time we play are really - or I should say the time we get back to training camp, are the scenarios that we need to as a staff think through and the possibilities.”

We are surely only days away from the first QB room herd-immunity theory.

What isn’t the answer, however, is banning doubles ping-pong, magic rings, and proximity alarms, or even six feet of distance right up until the huddle at practice at NFL facilities.

Is any of that meaningful policy or simply a game of three-card monte to make you believe something is being done?

You simply cannot legislate a virus even though we’ve collectively destroyed economies around the world trying.

The real, unedited data is a mixed bag. By Saturday the United States hit a record of over 580,000 tests nationwide (good) so it makes sense that gross numbers of COVID-19 cases are up. However, the percentage of positive tests is also up (that’s bad). The median age for those positive tests is way down (good) and hospitalizations and serious cases remain very manageable (the best news of all), the long-forgotten goal of the original flattening-the-curve objective, and why the NFL and everyone else for that matter continues to march forward.

Those who point to any perceived successes or failures of that data in a generalized red vs. blue tint are either purposefully trafficking in misinformation or uneducated on what the numbers mean. You can be the judge there but President Donald Trump is the red herring for both and consistently mucks things up as the world's first human lightning rod.

“Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football,” Trump tweeted. “They are planning a very safe and controlled opening.”

To further muddy the waters, though, the Troll-er in Chief riled up his haters by rattling their cages with ancillary issues.

“However, if they don’t stand for our National Anthem and our Great American Flag, I won’t be watching!!!,” the POTUS fired off.

The only real issue here is that no one wants to be responsible for explaining the difficult decision that has already been made to the public.

You can be very confident in sports returning because of those aforementioned TV rights fees so when you already know the destination, it should be easier to figure out the path to get there. If Major League Baseball doesn't play it will have more to do with the next CBA than COVID-19.

Another former NFL executive, Andrew Brandt, cut through all the white noise.

“Let's be honest about contact sports amid Covid-19. If health and safety were the only priority, or the highest priority, they wouldn't play,” Brandt astutely wrote on social media. “But economics matters and sports is business. We can admit that while acknowledging that playing is not the safest route we can take.”

When you stipulate to that and understand the NFL is playing you can get down to the meat of the matter -- how do we make everyone as safe as we possibly can?

“You have to focus on fitting football inside of this world of coronavirus and not get caught up in trying to fit coronavirus inside of this world,‘' Tretter explained. “The way coronavirus has changed how every industry is working, you can’t expect just to throw football back in and think that the virus is going to kneel down to almighty football.

“You have to look through different ways of making sure people stay healthy.‘'

The latest news might mean no fans or far less than what was hoped for early last week but the games are still coming.

The people in power need to stop talking in contradictions and let you in on the secret.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task,‘' Sills said. “We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.‘'

You’ll see no qualifiers there.

The NFL will be back. What we don’t know is what it will look like.

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MORE: John McMullen: Protests are okay, but sports aren't?

John McMullen is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media and also contributes Eagles and NFL coverage for You can reach him at or on Twitter: @JFMcMullen

You can listen to John during the week every Monday and Friday on @SIRIUSXM’s Tony Bruno Show with Harry Mayes, every Tuesday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on @SBNationRadio, and daily on your favorite podcast platform for "Extending the Play."