SOCIAL DISTANCING AT HOME — Basketball, soccer and hockey did it perfect.
Baseball stumbled in the beginning, but in the end pulled off a pretty good season, if you leave Justin Turner out of the discussion.
Football was the one major team sport that seemed to be a lost cause when the subject of containment of COVID-19 was brought up. Colleges left and right decided early to just not mess with football. The NFL went ahead with the idea, thinking that their players would look at the other leagues and behave themselves and obey all the rules they set down.
Eventually, college football was started up in several conferences after tremendous pressure from parents and the media. Nobody seems to miss Ivy League football, but most everywhere else the games have been played, albeit with abbreviated schedules against conference opponents only.
At least most of the games have been played. Both the NFL and the colleges have had their share of postponed or canceled games due to Coronavirus outbreaks on various teams. Unlike MLB, which did manage to curtail the early problems with the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals, football, in general, has not done a good job in checking the problems associated with the pandemic.
2020 will play out somehow, leagues will decide their champions, and these teams and schools will get at least some money for their trouble. But what does football do moving forward? If this pandemic is still going on in the fall of 2021, what then?
If the other major sports continue to enjoy success with their bubbles, football will have to resort to this sort of thing also. Baseball brought in bubbles for only the postseason, but during the regular season they pretty much bunkered down in their stadiums, played against only teams in their geographical region in both leagues (the Red Sox played only against AL East and NL East teams). Again, after an early hiccup, they made it work.
That said, here is what football leagues, colleges and pro, might consider.
This idea was brought up for the NFL and was summarily rejected, but it did present a solution to the problem.
In the NFL, find four large cities and house eight teams per city. AFC and NFC East could bed down in New York, AFC and NFC North in Chicago, AFC and NFC South in Dallas, and AFC and NFC West in Los Angeles. All four of those cities should have eight hotels that could be available to each of the teams in their city. Each city would have either a new, almost new, or recently refurbished stadium to play in.
Confine the teams to their hotels when not on football business. Find eight high schools in the area to use as practice fields. If the pandemic is still ongoing, finding high school fields would likely be no problem. Try to take over the entire hotel (like the NBA did in Orlando) so that players don’t have to stay inside all the time when at the hotel.
Play a 14-game season, six against division opponents and eight against the teams in your other conference. Play four games each weekend, two on Saturday and two on Sunday, with the start times to be 1:00 PM local time for Game 1 and 8:30 PM for Game 2. Make the second game later to allow for overtime, sanitization and other safety measures.
All during the entire season, players are to remain in the bubble. Once a team’s season is over, all players leave the bubble and return home. Like baseball, offer any player that wants to opt-out of the regular season the ability to do so.
Designate playoff cities in advance. Create bubbles in those cities. Set the playoff structure back to the previous way of 6 teams in each conference and the top two seeds in each conference get a bye. Set conference championship games in designated cities, with one of them being the Super Bowl city. Families can join the players for the conference championships and the Super Bowl, but not before. As each team loses in the playoffs, they immediately head home.
Colleges can do much the same thing. Take the Big Ten, for example.
Create two bubbles, one in Indianapolis and one in Minneapolis. Eastern and Western divisions separate into bubbles, with Indianapolis taking the East. The Western division games could be played in either TCF Bank Stadium or US Bank Stadium. Both of these cities have hosted Super Bowls (ask the Patriots, they have lost a Super Bowl in each city) and thus could likely have enough hotel space available.
Keep the players quarantined like the NFL. Make sure each team has plenty of laptops so the players can attend class (if the pandemic is still ongoing, distance learning will still be going on), and make sure there are no WiFi issues at the hotels. Designate class time and practice time. Practice at area high schools like the NFL.
Play at least eight games against teams in the same division. After six games, you would have to play two repeat opponents. Twelve games may be pushing it, but you would then play all other teams in your division twice. Yes, that would mean two meetings between Michigan and Ohio State. Only the die-hard purists would object to two meetings between these two traditional rivals.
One potential problem would be, if you played four-weekend games like the NFL, how would you handle Sundays in stadiums that also house an NFL team. Minneapolis would be no problem, as the Saturday games could be at US Bank and the Sunday games at TCF Bank to avoid a conflict with the Vikings. Indianapolis poses a tougher issue; the Sunday games could be played 130 miles to the north at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend if travel logistics could be worked out.
A more controversial solution would be to play games on Friday and Saturday, as long as educators and parents don’t mind the kids missing class on Friday if their game is at 1:00 PM local time. Alternation in scheduling would help, and it’s not like we’re talking about the entire fall semester.
Designate a city for the league championship and make it a bubble. Top teams in each division play in the game. You could switch between Indianapolis and Minneapolis in alternating years if need be.
Other college conferences could follow suit. Bubbles for the SEC could be New Orleans and Atlanta (also two experienced Super Bowl cities capable of providing a ton of hotels), with alternate playing sites at Baton Rouge (LSU) and Grant Field in Atlanta (Georgia Tech). For the ACC, perhaps Washington/Baltimore (alternate each week) and Philadelphia (Lincoln Financial Field and the old home of the Eagles, Franklin Field). The Pac-12 could use Los Angeles and the Bay Area as bubbles; SoFi Stadium would not be available to use, but perhaps the Rose Bowl would be if (and this is a big “if”, ask the Seattle Seahawks) the city of Pasadena could be placated. Phoenix (State Farm Stadium and Sun Devil Stadium have both hosted Super Bowls) could be an alternate site for the Pac-12 South. Now that it has been abandoned by the Raiders, the Oakland Coliseum could be the site for the Pac-12 North given that Levi’s Stadium would also be unavailable.
There. That’s it. The rest is detail.
And detail is why someone out there would holler out “This won’t work!” The problem is that something has to work. Football has to figure out what works for them. This is a solution that is based on macro management but not micromanagement. The amount of behind the scenes logistics that would have to be worked out is staggering, and it begins with finding enough hotels for all the players and the ability to keep players quarantined on the hotel campus and away from anyone spreading the novel Coronavirus.
Spending that much time away from family is asking a lot. But the NBA and NHL did it, and players can opt-out if they want. Those who stay will have to obey the rules. Understand completely that it’s not enough just to compete for your league’s championship.
The other sports leagues have set the market, if you will. Football now needs to step up and show that they can also play and not get sick or cancel a bunch of games in the process.
Posted Under: NFL Commentary